Jim Gates: A Reflection on Einstein’s Opinions About Racism and African-Americans

Jim Gates: A Reflection on Einstein’s Opinions About Racism and African-Americans

APS Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group asked 2021 APS President S. James Gates for his thoughts during Black History Month

APS News

1 February 2021

What are your thoughts surrounding Einstein’s opinions about racism and African-Americans?

I’ll begin my answer by quoting from his book, “Albert Einstein: Out of My Later Years”:

"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. Even among these, there are prejudices, of which I as a Jew, am clearly conscious; 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 American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity only by speaking out.

"Many a sincere person will answer me: 'Our attitude towards Negroes is the result of unfavorable experiences, which we have had living side by side with Negroes in this country. They are not our equals in intelligence, sense of responsibility, reliability.' I am firmly convinced that whoever believes this suffers from a fatal misconception."

Although Einstein was an imperfect being, as are we all, he clearly recognized the racist treatment that people of color were subjected to in the United States. The most remarkable thing about his realization was his unflinching boldness to condemn anti-black racism and the widespread belief in a "service race theory," that people of color should be judged only by their ability to serve others, and, therefore, subject to unequal treatment in society. Moreover, Einstein’s concern about racism was evident during his interactions with W.E.B. DuBois, civil rights activist, historian, and a founder of the NAACP. Einstein later put his thoughts to words in an editorial published by DuBois. To gain a deeper understanding of their interactions, I recommend the book “Einstein on Race and Racism.”