Albert Einstein famously called racism a “disease of white people”, but it appears it is a disease he himself wasn’t immune to. Yes, the depressing truth is that the revered scientist responsible for E=mc2 and the theory of general relativity was also a xenophobic.
The revelation comes after the publication of a series of private travel diaries he wrote during a tour of Asia in the early twenties, in which he describes Chinese people as “obtuse” and Sri Lankans as people who “do little, and need little”. This is the very first time the travel diaries have been printed as a standalone volume and the first time they will be available to non-academics.
In October 1922, Einstein set off on a 5.5-month tour of Spain, Palestine, and the Far East, documenting details of his travels and recording his musings on science, philosophy, art, and politics in a series of telegraphic-style diary entries. Unfortunately, they also contain quite a few unsavory comments that can quite easily be construed as racist.
The worst descriptions appear to be targeted at people in China, where he spent two brief stints during the trip. He calls the Chinese “industrious, filthy, obtuse people” and goes on to say, they are “often more like automatons than people.”
Then, he throws in some misogyny with the racism for good measure, commenting: “I noticed how little difference there is between men and women; I don’t understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess which enthrals the corresponding men to such an extent that they are incapable of defending themselves against the formidable blessing of offspring.”
And some more xenophobia: “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”
Einstein was more complimentary of the Japanese, calling them “unostentatious, decent” and “pure souls as nowhere else among people.” Though he also says the “intellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones.”
Before you say Einstein was a product of the time and things have moved on from then (have they?), Ze’ev Rosenkranz, senior editor and assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology, points out to The Guardian: “There were other views out there, more tolerant views.”
It’s especially disappointing because Einstein, a refugee himself, has acquired a reputation as a humanitarian and civil rights activist. He even wrote this in a 1946 essay: “There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins…The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.”
Which makes the latest revelations particularly ironic. As Rosenkranz suggests, perhaps the diary entries are “more off guard” as “he didn’t intend them for publication.”
[H/T: The Guardian]