Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Einstein On Race In America

Ken O’Brien

In 1946 Albert Einstein addressed what was called, “the Negro question” in a document belonging to the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls of physics.”

He began by noting that as a newcomer to America he might not have the right to speak. “I am writing seriously and warningly about things which concern [Americans] alone, and which no newcomer should touch[.]” 

“I do not think such a standpoint is justified,” he wrote. “One who has grown up in an environment takes much for granted. On the other hand, one who has come to this country as a mature person may have a keen eye for everything peculiar and characteristic.”

One characteristic Einstein observed was that the American “sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins.”

“Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious,” he continued, “but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the ‘Whites’ toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. 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.”

Einstein then addressed the complaints of those who have had “unfavorable experiences…living side by side with Negroes” which have led them to believe “[t]hey are not our equals in intelligence, sense of responsibility, reliability.”

“I am firmly convinced that whoever believes this suffers from a fatal misconception,” he wrote. “Your ancestors dragged these black people from their homes by force; and in the white man’s quest for wealth and an easy life they have been ruthlessly suppressed and exploited, degraded into slavery. The modern prejudice against Negroes is the result of the desire to maintain this unworthy condition.”

Einstein maintained that this position was, in part, a conditioned response that Americans had “unconsciously absorb[ed] as children from [their] environment.” But he implored them to not only be better — but to be better than the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

“The ancient Greeks also had slaves,” he wrote. “They were not Negroes but white men who had been taken captive in war. There could be no talk of racial differences. And yet Aristotle, one of the great Greek philosophers, declared slaves inferior beings who were justly subdued and deprived of their liberty. It is clear that he was enmeshed in a traditional prejudice from which, despite his extraordinary intellect, he could not free himself.” 

“We must try to recognize what in our accepted tradition is damaging to our fate and dignity,” Einstein concluded, “and shape our lives accordingly. I believe that whoever tries to think things through honestly will soon recognize how unworthy and even fatal is the traditional bias against Negroes.”

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