Science

Albert Einstein railed against racism. Now, his travel diaries reveal he had a racist streak

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Einstein, who died in 1955, describes the Chinese as “industrious, filthy, obtuse people,” remarking how they “don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods.”
They are “a peculiar herd-like nation,” he writes, “often more like automatons than people.”
“It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races,” he later adds. “For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”
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Einstein, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who frequently denounced the racism he saw in the United States and once famously described racial segregation as “a disease of white people,” made the remarks in a personal diary kept in 1922 and 1923 during a six-month trip to East Asia, Palestine and Spain.
He wrote daily, documenting his personal impressions of the people and places he encountered and musing on art, philosophy and science.
The journals have now been edited and translated into English by archivist and historian Ze’ev Rosenkranz. They were published by Princeton University Press.
“The language is extreme,” Rosenkranz told CNN. “It’s disturbing and shocking for the modern era.”
The shock is even greater, given Einstein’s image as a “humanitarian icon,” he said.
“If you’re a true humanist, you think all life has the same value. But he didn’t subscribe to that in those years,” Rosenkranz said, adding: “Maybe he did later on.”

‘As if spewed from hell’

Einstein does not reserve his racist remarks solely for the Chinese. After a journey up the Suez Canal, he reaches Port Said, Egypt, where he encounters what he describes as “screaming and gesticulating Levantines of every shade, who lunge at our ship. As if spewed from hell.”
Visiting the port for a second time on his return trip, he comments on the “riff-raff,” translated from a German word that, as Rosenkranz points out in the book’s introduction, has a connotation of “vermin” and can be interpreted as xenophobic.
On a visit to Colombo in Sri Lanka, Einstein complains about the “rickshaw coolies” and describes the “natives” as “intrusive” and “primitive.”
His impressions of the Japanese are much more positive. Einstein describes them as “unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing” and praises their “cute little houses.”
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Yet even as he writes admiringly, he continues to reduce whole nations to a flat bundle of superficial characteristics.
The people he meets remain mostly as caricatures, dehumanized and stereotyped representatives of their nations with little room for individuality, nuance or complexity.
Daniel Kennefick, astrophysicist at the University of Arkansas and author of “An Einstein Encyclopedia,” said he was “taken aback” when he read the diaries. “One does think of Einstein as a saintlike figure, and it’s striking to see him here making these racist remarks.”
Kennefick also noted, though, that Einstein was concerned about people idolizing him. “He felt that people were putting him up on a pedestal,” said Kennefick. “He was conscious of that, that people were inclined to think of him as a lovely guy who never had a bad thought in his life.”
Rosenkranz agreed. “I’m in favor of a much more complex perception of him as a human being,” he said. “The public image is often very two-dimensional, very black and white.”

‘Have an honest look at ourselves’

Some argue that Einstein’s xenophobic and dehumanizing descriptions simply reflect stereotypes rampant in the West at the time.
But Rosenkranz does not believe the scientist can be excused in that way. “I don’t like that explanation,” he said. “There were other views prevalent at the time that were more tolerant.”
Rosenkranz explains his approach to the project in the book’s preface.
“I have always enjoyed his quirky style, his acerbic quips about the individuals he met, and the colourful descriptions of the hustle and bustle in his ports of call,” he writes.
“It was only later that I started to notice the more troublesome entries in his journal, in which he, at times, made what amounted to xenophobic comments about some of the peoples he encountered. I began to ask myself: how could this humanist icon be the author of such passages?”
He insists that the diaries are particularly pertinent “in today’s world, in which the hatred of the Other is so rampant in so many places.”
“In such a reality, it is especially pertinent to explore how even the poster-child for humanitarian efforts … could have held prejudiced and stereotypical beliefs about the members of other nations.”
Rosenkranz hopes the diaries will encourage people to reflect on their own views. “We need to look at our own prejudices and attitudes,” he told CNN. “We need to not just be judgmental about Einstein but to have an honest look at ourselves as well.”

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