Albert Einstein Explains How Slavery Has Crippled Everyone’s Ability to Think Clearly About Racism

Image by Fer­di­nand Schmutzer, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

“Should we allow celebri­ties to dis­cuss pol­i­tics?” goes one vari­a­tion on an ever­green head­line and sup­pos­ed­ly legit­i­mate pub­lic debate. No amount of pub­lic dis­ap­proval could have stopped some of the most out­spo­ken pub­lic fig­ures, and we’d be the worse off for it in many cas­es. Muham­mad Ali, John Lennon, Nina Simone, George Car­lin, Roger Waters, Mar­garet Cho, and, yes, Meryl Streep—millions of peo­ple have been very grate­ful (and many not) for these artists’ polit­i­cal com­men­tary. When it comes to sci­en­tists, how­ev­er, we tend to see more base­less accu­sa­tions of polit­i­cal speech than over­whelm­ing evi­dence of it.

But there have been those few sci­en­tists and philoso­phers who were also celebri­ties, and who made their polit­i­cal views well-known with­out reser­va­tion. Bertrand Rus­sell was such a per­son, as was Albert Ein­stein, who took up the caus­es of world peace and of racial jus­tice in the post-war years. As we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly not­ed, Einstein’s com­mit­ments were both phil­an­thropic and activist, and he formed close friend­ships with Paul Robe­son, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mar­i­an Ander­son, and oth­er promi­nent black lead­ers.

Ein­stein also co-chaired an anti-lynch­ing cam­paign and issued a scathing con­dem­na­tion of racism dur­ing a speech he gave in 1946 at the alma mater of Langston Hugh­es and Thur­good Mar­shall in which he called racism “a dis­ease of white peo­ple.” That same year, notes On Being’s exec­u­tive edi­tor Trent Gilliss, Ein­stein “penned one of his most artic­u­late and elo­quent essays advo­cat­ing for the civ­il rights of black peo­ple in Amer­i­ca.” Titled “The Negro Ques­tion” and pub­lished in the Jan­u­ary 1946 edi­tion of Pageant mag­a­zine, the essay, writes Gilliss, “was intend­ed to address a pri­mar­i­ly white read­er­ship.”

Ein­stein begins by answer­ing the inevitable objec­tion, “What right has he to speak about things which con­cern us alone, and which no new­com­er should touch?” To this, the famed physi­cist answers, “I do not think such a stand­point is jus­ti­fied.” Ein­stein believed he had a unique per­spec­tive: “One who has grown up in an envi­ron­ment takes much for grant­ed. On the oth­er hand, one who has come to this coun­try as a mature per­son may have a keen eye for every­thing pecu­liar and char­ac­ter­is­tic.” Speak­ing freely about his obser­va­tions, Ein­stein felt “he may per­haps prove him­self use­ful.”

Then, after prais­ing the country’s “demo­c­ra­t­ic trait” and its cit­i­zens’ “healthy self-con­fi­dence and nat­ur­al respect for the dig­ni­ty of one’s fel­low-man,” he plain­ly observes that this “sense of equal­i­ty and human dig­ni­ty is main­ly lim­it­ed to men of white skins.” Antic­i­pat­ing a casu­al­ly racist defense of “nat­ur­al” dif­fer­ences, Ein­stein replies:

I am firm­ly con­vinced that who­ev­er believes this suf­fers from a fatal mis­con­cep­tion. Your ances­tors dragged these black peo­ple from their homes by force; and in the white man’s quest for wealth and an easy life they have been ruth­less­ly sup­pressed and exploit­ed, degrad­ed into slav­ery. The mod­ern prej­u­dice against Negroes is the result of the desire to main­tain this unwor­thy con­di­tion.

The ancient Greeks also had slaves. They were not Negroes but white men who had been tak­en cap­tive in war. There could be no talk of racial dif­fer­ences. And yet Aris­to­tle, one of the great Greek philoso­phers, declared slaves infe­ri­or beings who were just­ly sub­dued and deprived of their lib­er­ty. It is clear that he was enmeshed in a tra­di­tion­al prej­u­dice from which, despite his extra­or­di­nary intel­lect, he could not free him­self.

Like the ancient Greeks, Amer­i­cans’ prej­u­dices are “con­di­tioned by opin­ions and emo­tions which we uncon­scious­ly absorb as chil­dren from our envi­ron­ment.” And racist atti­tudes are both caus­es and effects of eco­nom­ic exploita­tion, learned behav­iors that emerge from his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances, yet we “rarely reflect” how pow­er­ful the influ­ence of tra­di­tion is “upon our con­duct and con­vic­tions.” The sit­u­a­tion can be reme­died, Ein­stein believed, though not “quick­ly healed.” The “man of good will,” he wrote, “must have the courage to set an exam­ple by word and deed, and must watch lest his chil­dren become influ­enced by this racial bias.”

Read the full essay at On Being, and learn more about Einstein’s com­mit­ted anti-racist activism from Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor’s 2006 book Ein­stein on Race and Racism.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Ein­stein Called Racism “A Dis­ease of White Peo­ple” in His Lit­tle-Known Fight for Civ­il Rights

Lis­ten as Albert Ein­stein Calls for Peace and Social Jus­tice in 1945

Albert Ein­stein Express­es His Admi­ra­tion for Mahat­ma Gand­hi, in Let­ter and Audio

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Bobby says:

    Mil­lions of peo­ple who idol­ize celebri­ty have been very grate­ful (and many who val­ue com­pe­tent knowl­edge not) for these artists’ polit­i­cal com­men­tary.

  • erle says:

    Using an awards show as a pub­lic stage as an oper­tu­ni­ty to expound a per­son­al opin­ion which might not be shared and no chance for rebut­tal. Is an abuse of the right to free space and cer­tain­ly in my mind is a dis­cred­it to that indi­vid­ual, how ever jus­ti­fied you think it is!!

  • Brian C Gay says:

    I have no prob­lem with Streep or any oth­er celebri­ty that choos­es to use their award plat­form to bring light to a top­ic that needs atten­tion. What I do take excep­tion to is that Streep belit­tled oth­er peo­ples’ inter­ests (foot­ball and mar­tial arts) while chastis­ing Trump for belit­tling oth­ers.

    I know it sounds sil­ly, but she sound­ed like a snob when she made the “foot­ball and mar­tial arts are not the arts” com­ment. I and many oth­ers take excep­tion to that. She makes it sound as though those pas­times are not as impor­tant just because she does­n’t think they are.

    Now, If she had said any­thing about base­ball I would have come unglued!

  • Mark L says:

    What plat­forms are appro­pri­ate for using our right to free speech, out of inter­est? Per­haps you ought to apply the same cri­te­ria to the right-wing press, which allows no right of rebut­tal on any of its arti­cles or news sto­ries.

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