No scientist in modern history looms larger in the public consciousness than Albert Einstein. Almost everyone knows who he was and what he looked like, at least toward the end of his life, when he entirely abandoned combing his hair. He is the poster example of genius for many. We all know E=mc2, even if most of us can’t really say what it means. It’s easy to forget that there was a real human being with that name, someone with a personality shaped by his culture and prejudices. In short, someone who could simultaneously be a noted humanitarian and hold racist opinions.
The Guardian published a summary of a new translation of the diary Einstein kept while traveling through Asia in the early 1920s. This was in the period after he won his Nobel Prize in physics, when his fame was reaching its first peak. As a result, he was in demand, and spent a lot of time traveling the world.
He enjoyed visiting Japan, but other countries — notably China and Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) — he described with very racist language. “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races,” he wrote in one passage. “For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”
For those who know something about Einstein, these racist statements are all the more disturbing. Prior to relocating to the United States in 1933 and even more so after, Einstein was active in anti-racist organizations, speaking out against the mistreatment of African-Americans. He lent his name and reputation to a number of causes led by prominent black leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. As I wrote for Smithsonian Magazine,
Einstein saw racism as a fundamental stumbling block to freedom. In both his science and his politics, Einstein believed in the need for individual liberty: the ability to follow ideas and life paths without fear of oppression. And he knew from his experiences as a Jewish scientist in Germany how easily that freedom could be destroyed in the name of nationalism and patriotism. In a 1946 commencement speech at Lincoln University, the oldest black college in the U.S., Einstein decried American racism in no uncertain terms.
“There is separation of colored people from white people in the United States,” said the renowned physicist, using the common term in the day. “That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.”
The contrast is stark between his strong social justice advocacy for African-Americans and his earlier words about Chinese and Sri Lankan people.
All the more worrisome about these newly translated diaries is that apart from them, Einstein said almost nothing about Asia and those of Asian descent. I spent quite a bit of time digging through the Einstein biographies and commentaries I own, along with his own essays, and there’s very little about China in any of them. The book Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor doesn’t discuss Einstein’s attitudes about Asia, even as they describe the civil wars and anticolonialist revolutions happening at that time. (Einstein did admire Mahatma Gandhi and his passive resistance strategy, though Gandhi’s own attitudes about black Africans were troubling.) As far as I can tell, Einstein never commented on — much less opposed — the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
This is troubling because Einstein wasn’t one to be quiet about matters he thought were important. He saw parallels between black Americans’ civil rights struggles and the plight of Jewish people in Nazi Germany, and built his compassion for African-Americans on that foundation. His anti-lynching activism in the 1940s was done in full public view, drawing the ire of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
As a diary, Einstein’s 1920s travel writings weren’t meant for publication and apart from some letters also printed in the book, what he wrote likely wasn’t intended for others to read. But those words combined with his silence on internment and other social justice issues in Asia — even as he was a loud activist in other areas — tells us a lot. At the very least, it’s very revealing about his priorities.
Where does that leave us? To me, it highlights a point made by many others: “racist” isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. Einstein could be racist about Chinese and Sri Lankan people, while being anti-racist with regards to black Americans. His work with African-Americans civil rights activists isn’t undone by his lack of compassion for Asia, any more than his anti-lynching advocacy wipes out his racist words about Chinese people.
Additionally, this just highlights the need to avoid idol-worship. Einstein wasn’t a perfect being, flawless in every way. He was complicated. We can admit he was contradictory: racist and anti-racist, just as we exist in a racist society and deal with internalized racism in ourselves. As with anyone, we should praise what is praiseworthy and condemn what isn’t. In that way, we respect Einstein fully, even if he failed to extend that respect to all people.