Albert Einstein held a speech in the United States against racism and oppression of African Americans, saying 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.”
He was Jewish and felt on his own skin the consequence of racism in Germany against Jews. Leaving Germany as the Nazis rose to power, he went to the US. There, he visited black neighborhoods in Princeton, New Jersey, and would talk to them and give their children candies.
Einstein’s Hidden Racist Side
However, about a decade before leaving Germany, he had different opinions on racism. He traveled in the 1920s to China and India, where his portrayal of the people he saw wasn’t filtered in his travel diaries.
The people he saw and he interacted with brought up racist thoughts, explains Ze’ev Rosenkranz, the senior editor and assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project (California Institute of Technology):
“In published statements, he’s usually in favor of civil and human rights and was socially progressive. I’m not saying that he didn’t believe in those things.” Rosenkranz edited “The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein,” which were recently published by Princeton University Press.
Rosenkranz explained that he doesn’t apologize for Einstein’s words, and that “the unpleasant remarks are quite shocking, but they do reveal that we all have this darker side to our attitudes and prejudices.”
Einstein traveled with his wife to the Mediterranean, Sri Lanka, China and Japan. He wrote about his journey and how the sea was, or how he’d see ‘in the evening, wonderful sunset – purple with finely illuminated narrow wind-swept clouds.’
As for the people he met, some of his words were unforgiving:
The average Japanese was “unproblematic, impersonal, he cheerfully fulfills the social function which befalls him without pretension, but proud of his community and nation. Forsaking his traditional ways in favor of European ones does not undermine his national pride.”
For him, Chinese were “industrious,” “filthy” and “obtuse.” They were “often more like automatons than people.” He saw Chinese people as “incapable of being trained to think logically.”
In India, he saw many beggars, and he felt for them, but also criticized them. In Colombo, Einstein said that the Indians and Sinhalese in Colombo “do little” and “need little.”
People from Levant were a “screaming and gesticulating” people “of every shade.” He said that merchants swarming the ship he was on looked like bandits and were filthy, but they were also “handsome and graceful to look at.”
A decade later, Einstein and his wife left Germany for a trip that was meant to last three months. But then, the Nazi party rose to power, so he didn’t return home. There, he fought for the civil rights, said Rosenkranz:
“It would be easy to say, yes, he became more enlightened.”
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.