Was Einstein a Racist?

Albert Einstein in Washington, D.C., c. 1921 (Library of Congress)
Only by 21st-century college-campus standards.

Time was, a Google search for “Albert Einstein” and “racist” turned up paeans to the physicist’s resounding public statements against racial animus.

That was two weeks ago.

Since then, Einstein has been tagged as a racist in headlines on the sites of CNN, NBC News, the BBC, Fox News, and the Washington Post (which also dubbed him “misogynist”). The New York Times, in its circumlocutionary way, kicked off the frenzy by dubbing him “not” “anti-racist.” At least in his travel diaries.

Thoughts Einstein scribbled down in those journals are now being used to heave mud on his sterling legacy as a great humanitarian, courtesy of the press of Princeton University, in the town where Einstein happily spent his sunset decades. Maybe it’s time to tear down that bust of him on the Princeton town-hall green. Or does Princeton wish to have its reputation tarred by its public veneration of a known racist?

The Times story expends 10 paragraphs telling us that Einstein was a racist before getting on to actual quotations, freely shorn of context. Example: A Chinese funeral is described as “barbaric for our taste,” the streets “swarming with pedestrians.” Oh? Is that it? “Swarming” is supposed to put us in a denunciatory state of mind? When the Times (May 5, 2015), described Bentonville, Ark., as “swarming with pedestrian traffic,” where was the outrage about that? Did describing people as “swarming” become racist in the last three years?

As for the word “barbaric,” the sentence in full reads, “During the meal we observed through the window a noisy, colorful Chinese funeral — a (somewhat) — for our taste — barbaric, almost seemingly comical affair.” From the context, it seems Einstein’s expectation of funerals is that they be solemn, sober, and dignified, and “barbaric” is the somewhat inapt adjective he chooses for the louder and splashier variety he has just witnessed. When you’re jotting down thoughts privately in a diary, you’re likely to be inexact. Einstein didn’t think these words would be parsed for hateful implications by the world media 96 years after they were written. This is one reason why we ordinarily grant a distinction between private thoughts and public statements.

The source of the Einstein-as-racist meme is Ze’ev Rosenkranz, assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology and the editor of the new compilation The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein, which pulls together some material that was previously published in German. “We can be certain that he did not intend it for posterity or for publication,” Rosenkranz writes. He turns the introduction of the book into a prosecutorial brief against Einstein by gathering a handful of remarks of the kind I have just quoted. At times the effort reeks with desperation: “We had a close look at the temple,” Einstein wrote. “The neighboring people seem to be indifferent toward its beauty.” Gotcha! Rosenkranz practically yells. “As there is no way that Einstein could have known what the villagers were thinking, this was clearly a projection on his part,” the editor writes.

To ball up all of these stray remarks in an effort to create a satisfying lump of racism to throw in Einstein’s face is a tiresome act.

Suffice it to say that in 1922, Einstein, like most people, felt no particular prohibition against making generalizations about groups of people. He didn’t much seem to like the Chinese, who he thought had too many children, many of whom appeared “spiritless and obtuse.” “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races,” Einstein wrote. “For the likes of us, the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.” In the Chinese countryside, he thought many of the peasants “industrious, filthy, obtuse people.” Industrious? A compliment. Obtuse? Unkind, but not obviously a racial epithet. Filthy? I doubt Chinese peasants bathed as much as Westerners did in 1922.

To ball up all of these stray remarks in an effort to create a satisfying lump of racism to throw in Einstein’s face is a tiresome act, especially when one considers Einstein’s impressions of the Chinese against the Japanese. “Pure souls as nowhere else among people. One has to love and admire this country,” Einstein said of them. The Times, bizarrely, chooses to list this sentiment as one of 13 set off by bullet points, each supposedly a piece of evidence against Einstein. Another bullet point quotes him saying, “Japanese unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing.” Saying good things about people of another race is racist? Is the Times going to purge every writer who ever praised black culture? Anyway, it’s clear that Einstein’s remarks about the Chinese, weighed against what he said about the Japanese, show that he had some problems with what he thought were aspects peculiar to Chinese culture, not with East Asians as a race.

Sensitivity-policing a diary kept in 1922 is probably not going to work out too well for anyone of that era, but what Einstein was doing was simply what travel writers do. In Dublin it’s “Those Irish sure love a pint,” in Spain it’s “Everything goes dead after lunch,” in France it’s “These people seem kind of snooty.” If you’ve ever had any of these thoughts, it doesn’t follow that you bear animus against white people, much less that you’re an obvious racist, much less that your reputation must be cast into doubt. When you interact with a culture that’s alien to you, your first thought is, “This is different from what I’m used to.” Your second thought is, “What is different about it?” Einstein was trying to make sense of what he saw. His random, private thoughts on other cultures don’t undo his public words and actions as a great humanitarian.

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