JUN 18, 2018: Two decades before Einstein said “Racism is a disease of white people,” he and his wife traveled to the Far East (via Colombo now Sri Lanka), Palestine and Spain between October 1922 and March 1923. During the 5-month long vacation the Nobel-winning scientist came across inhabitants of Indo-Pak subcontinent in Colombo and mentioned their existence in his diaries by referring to their “primitive lives”.
Those hitherto unpublished diary entries showing the genius’ human side have been made public recently and have sparked a debate on Einstein’s views on race and of people from the sub-continent, Sri Lanka, Japan, China and the Middle East — for example, calling the Chinese “industrious, filthy, obtuse people”.
People of Indian origin, Einstein seemed to have believed, were “biologically inferior” and were hampered by the subcontinent’s climate that “prevented them from thinking backward or forward by more than a quarter of an hour.”
This observation by the famous scientist was made public recently by Ze’ev Rosenkranz, the assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology, and the editor of a book that compiles Albert Einstein’s travel diaries.
In them Einstein makes comments that are “in contrast to the public image of the great humanitarian icon”, Rosenkranz told British newspaper The Guardian.
It was in 1946, that the physicist, speaking at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania — the first college to give degrees to black people — had denounced racism in his speech that birthed his quote: “Racism is a disease of white people.”
Such an observation reveals both Einstein’s belief in geographical determinism and in the Indians’ alleged intellectual inferiority,” Rosenkranz writes.
The climate and its effect on Indians comes up again in Einstein’s diaries.
According to Rosenkranz, Einstein attributes the “alleged stoicism of the Indians he encounters to geographical determination [by asking]: ‘Wouldn’t we too, in this climate, become like the Indians?’.”
The physicist describes arriving in Port Said in Egypt and facing “Levantines of every shade… as if spewed from hell” who come aboard their ship to sell their goods.
He also describes his time in Colombo in Ceylon, writing of the people: “They live in great filth and considerable stench down on the ground, do little, and need little.”
In other entries he calls China “a peculiar herd-like nation,” and “more like automatons than people”.
So, was the father of the atomic bomb really a racist? We will probably never know. But, Einstein’s comments about Asians, especially the Chinese, do leave eyebrows raised.
Sample these: “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races” and “I don’t understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess which enthralls the corresponding men to such an extent that they are incapable of defending themselves against the formidable blessing of offspring.”
And so, Rosenkranz writes, “Einstein’s diary entries on the biological origin of the alleged intellectual inferiority of the Japanese, Chinese, and Indians are definitely not understated and can be viewed as racist – in these instances, other peoples are portrayed as being biologically inferior, a clear hallmark of racism.”
His diaries are full of gut reactions and private insights. But the words were written before he saw what racism could lead to in America and Germany – a country he had effectively fled.
When he moved to the US in 1933 he was taken aback by the separate schools and cinemas for blacks and whites and Einstein subsequently joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
He is said to have told people that he saw similarities in the way Jews were being hounded in Germany and how African-Americans were being treated in his new homeland.
Einstein was undoubtedly one of the most influential physicists of all time, advancing concepts in quantum physics and gaining enormous notoriety for his theory of relativity. But what made him so different from any other person? Turns out his brain was wired in a very different way!