Albert Einstein’s Essay on Racial Bias in 1946

Tuesday, July 12, 2016 - 2:00 pm

Albert Einstein’s Essay on Racial Bias in 1946

In the years after World War II, Albert Einstein took up the mantle of confronting racism in America. He became a good friend and comrade of the prominent opera singer Paul Robeson, co-chaired an anti-lynching campaign, and was an outspoken supporter of W.E.B. Du Bois. But, it was in January 1946, that he penned one of his most articulate and eloquent essays advocating for the civil rights of black people in America. And, as described in Einstein on Race and Racism, the iconic physicist equated the ghettoization of Jews in Germany and segregation in America, calling racism America’s “worst disease.”
Originally published in the January 1946 issue of Pageant magazine, Albert Einstein’s essay was intended to address a primarily white readership:

The Negro Question
by Albert Einstein

I am writing as one who has lived among you in America only a little more than ten years, and I am writing seriously and warningly. Many readers may ask: “What right has he to speak about things which concern us alone, and which no newcomer should touch?”

I do not think such a standpoint is justified. 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. I believe he should speak out freely on what he sees and feels, for by so doing he may perhaps prove himself useful.

What soon makes the new arrival devoted to this country is the democratic trait among the people. I am not thinking here so much of the democratic political constitution of this country, however highly it must be praised. I am thinking of the relationship between individual people and of the attitude they maintain toward one another.

In the United States everyone feels assured of his worth as an individual. No one humbles himself before another person or class. Even the great difference in wealth, the superior power of a few, cannot undermine this healthy self-confidence and natural respect for the dignity of one’s fellow-man.

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 an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.

Many a sincere person will answer: “Our attitude towards Negroes is the result of unfavorable experiences which we have had by 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. 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.

The ancient Greeks also had slaves. 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.

A large part of our attitude toward things is conditioned by opinions and emotions which we unconsciously absorb as children from our environment. In other words, it is tradition — besides inherited aptitudes and qualities — which makes us what we are. We but rarely reflect how relatively small as compared with the powerful influence of tradition is the influence of our conscious thought upon our conduct and convictions.

It would be foolish to despise tradition. But with our growing self-consciousness and increasing intelligence we must begin to control tradition and assume a critical attitude toward it, if human relations are ever to change for the better. We must try to recognize what in our accepted tradition is damaging to our fate and dignity — 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.

What, however, can the man of good will do to combat this deeply rooted prejudice? He must have the courage to set an example by word and deed, and must watch lest his children become influenced by this racial bias.

I do not believe there is a way in which this deeply entrenched evil can be quickly healed. But until this goal is reached there is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the service of the good cause.

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is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as publisher & editor-in-chief. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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  • Charlito Brown

    “Where was the White church when young black men we’re being lynched?”

    Hmmm… Wow… Is that a question that has ever been asked publicly?

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  • Kim Thomas

    In many concepts I agree with you. There is one thing that bothers me about what you left out. The numbers of whites killed by police, many unarmed as well, as a comparison. You will find the numbers much higher. This issue of police shootings is more about the police state rather than racism.

    • Blue

      It becomes racism when you shoot a young boy Kim,not once not twice and then you get away with it.

  • Larry Bob

    Racism is bad, without a doubt but some of your comments belows are embarrassing. To blame racism on the right-wing/”hate-talk” radio? Really? That’s such an uneducated answer. You may want to do a little research but I’m pretty sure it was the left-wing democrat party that didn’t want blacks in their schools. The majority of the lynchings happened in the south, again democrat strongholds of that era……Next, making reparations to specifically blacks by sending them to rich private schools? Haha. That’s racism against all other races……Next, what is this white privilege and male privilege? It’s ridiculous. I want to know of one example of a black, Latino, Asian…U.S. citizen, male or female, that tried everything they could, worked harder than all the rest but could never get ahead because of the evil white man. It’s preposterous. Sure, some people enter this world in socioeconomic conditions that are unfavorable, but I’m tired of hearing that they are destined to be stuck there because so many of you’ll think so little of them and just write them off because they supposedly don’t have a chance to prosper. We don’t live with a caste system. This is America and that is what is so great about our WONDERFUL country of that many of you’ll seem to be ashamed. Every citizen has an opportunity to make something of themselves. Sure, some have it easier than others, but that’s life. Life’s not fair. I learned that as a child from my mother. Thank God she didn’t tell me to live life with a chip on my shoulder because of all the unfairness that exists in the world…..or I would have ended up like a lot of you!

    • Blue

      You must be living in a different dimension Bob.

      • Harry Hardons

        Yeah, blue. It’s called the dimension of truth. But of course anytime someone doesn’t agree with everything they see in the media, they must be crazy and ignorant, end of story. It could never possibly be the other way around…. Why don’t you simply tell me what I said that was false next time instead of leaving me some petty comment

        • Hi Harry, I’m very interested in your contribution here. I was curious as to who you were and searched for you on Twitter. Are you there? I found your Facebook and that added to my curiosity.

      • Texz Tornado187um

        Exactly! Einstein, himself stated, “that racism was a white man’s disease..NOT the black man”.
        –smh!!
        Denial likewise; is a HORRID PROBLEM of Caucasians.

    • fass52

      Push back as usual from the devout racist who thinks equal rights is racist against white people.

      • Harry Hardons

        Hahaha….and as usual a response that lacks any substance and doesn’t address a single point I made. Instead only an accusation of being a racist even though the first words of my comments were “Racism is bad” and even though I AM BLACK. You are just one of many that can’t form his own opinions and conclusions until some leftist in the media tells you what your opinion will be that day. As a black man, countless times I have heard (unfortunately many of those times, from other blacks) that how disgraceful I am for abandoning my “own people,” I am an embarrassment to my entire race, or even that I am just another racist white man stuck in a black mans body. Isn’t it ironic that you’ll preach all this tolerance and equality BS but that only applies to those that agree with you. You all are always busy patting yourself on the back for standing up for the transgender that wasn’t able to use a certain restroom and the deported Hispanic that is separated from his family because he was illegally living here but when a white is denied entry to an all-black institution or a church is forced to do something that goes against centuries of values, traditions, and teachings you’ll are no where to be found. You’ll have no respect for values, beliefs, or laws. It’s all about how you feel that day. Anytime someone comes along who is able to think for himself and doesn’t recite and fall for everything he hears in the media, you call him names or try to impugn his character simply because he doesn’t agree with you. The Democratic Party is the only party that institutionally supported slavery and racism, not the Republicans. As a matter of fact not too long ago (less than 10 years) there was a US senator (Robert Byrd) that was a recruiter for the Ku Klux Clan. He was in the senate for 50 years! You want to guess which party of which he was a member??? Hint: he wasn’t a republican. A republican never would have gotten away with that. He would have been shamed out of office or killed by some leftist lunatic. But as always, as long as someone gets in line and stands up for whatever feeling you’ll have that day, it’s not a problem. So, fass52, how about this time you actually tell me what it is that I said that wasn’t true instead of resorting to name calling because you can’t find anything that I said that is false.

  • rar113

    Nowadays we are even more blind, for the slaves toil in faraway places for proxy slave drivers. Like every empire built on slavery, this one is bound to fall.

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  • JERRY

    GIVE YOUR LIFE TO GOD AND LOVE YOURSELF AS CHRIST LOVED YOU AND YOU WILL BE BLIND TO RACISM- ITS AS SIMPLE AS THAT

    • fass52

      BS! Racism exists in the church and is the reason you all turned Jesus white!

  • Sylvester Evans

    I posted this last year for the first time and feel I’ll probably re-post this annually. Maybe the message has to filter thru this portal along side all the other means we have to share truths.

  • Susan LaDuke

    Came across this today. After 70+ years, it’s depressingly apparent that much really hasn’t changed. Until the past 2 years, I had naively believed that we as a society are conquering hatred and bigotry. After seeing true, vile hatred emerge it’s ugly head with the Trump administration and his followers, I started questioning the real truth. This past weekend and the following days have shown that racism is still very much present in the USA. As an almost 60 year old woman, I feel sorry for my children, grandchildren and future generations. There is still so much more wok to do.
    All the fighting, protests, rallying against the evils of hatred must continue. We must not allow hate, racism, intolerance, bigotry and injustice to win. Love will always trump hate.

  • Crystal Martin
  • Island Mountain Farm

    Kisse, I’ve been reading your responses to posts and I’ve very confused, Perhaps I’m completely misreading you intent, are you being sarcastic ? If you aren’t then I’d like you to tell me about this “they” you keep referring to Kisse. I’ve never met a “they”, I deal with individuals who each have their own story, their dreams, their aspirations, and their goals. Please tell me, who are these “theys” that you speak about in such a condescending and contemptuous way.