Albert Einstein's Essay on Racial Bias in 1946

Tuesday, July 12, 2016 - 2:00pm
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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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Trent Gilliss

is the cofounder of On Being / KTPP and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. 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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Should be mandatory reading for every American.

We are a product of what we feed on. A diet of violence and negativity is not going to produce a peaceful, positive nation. Our attitude of superiority does not serve us well. Until we wake up to the fact that what we do to another we do to ourselves, we will continue to live the adage "after me You come first".

Einstein was a very wise man, and his words hold much truth. Can you imagine how our world would be today if he had social media available to him in his lifetime and people had listened to him! We can only wish...

We can only wish... Surely there is more than we can do than just wish.

Einstein must speak out, as should we, against the "White's" treatment of the Negroes, because
he does not want the feeling of complicity to burden his soul. The attitude which puts down Negroes
as unequal to white people must end. Would that this sensitive, sensible essay were taught in all our
schools! It bears being heard again around the country where police are trying to engage with black
communities and grow bi-lateral understanding and cooperation. Only by personal contact can racial
bias begin to be eradicated in America. We've become weary. Let's reach out in love to each other and
embrace change and grow!

Beautifully written, timeless. Introduces another dimension of Einstein. Wonder where this was published when he wrote it? Thank you for sharing it with us now. Tragic that it is still so relevant.

Traditions are neither good nor bad. However, as we grow in age and mindfulness, we must examine our traditions and jettison those that are harmful. Why is this essay not required reading in all our schools!

I have never been aware of this essay, and I am a long time peace activist and scientist admiring Einstein's work and life. I think he is spot on. I also have been thinking for a very long time, that the United States of America has never gotten over slavery. Our economic structure is dependent on cheap disposable labor. Until we truly face the past, like the Germans faced their Nazi heritage, we will not go forward as a culture. I appreciate this post and hope it goes viral

Thank you Mr. Gillis for this wonderful essay. In my opinion, Abraham Lincoln was the greatest President and Statesman the United States ever had and will always be. I don't think that the U. S. is ready or will ever be ready to shed the deep held inferiority of African-Americans. They were stripped of their humanity and dignity which are yet to restored. On the 1st of January, 1863 President Lincoln issued the final Proclamation and slavery was officially abolished. It was over eight decades after the abolition of slavery that Einstein penned his essay. Listen to what Lincoln said; "There is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man." Is there ambiguity in this statement? Does this statement mean anything to the White privileged class? Do they not see themselves as having divine mandate to rule inferior class? Why in 2016, town hall meetings are being held to talk about mending relationship between blacks and whites? Is the U. S. ready to have this statement in deed and not just in words? Where was the White church when young black men were being lynched?

I was surprised at how shallow his argument is. I agree with questioning tradition, as any self aware person should. But he doesn't talk about learned prejudice, which is derived from experience, not cultural suggestion. This is a much thornier form of bias which I am amazed actually that he didn't address it.

I think Einstein uses the term to be more forceful than our current usage...He talks of the "traditional prejudice" and of our being "conditioned by opinions and emotions which we unconsciously absorb as children from our environment. "

Thank you for bringing this to attention. I wish he would have also written about the treatment of Native Americans.

The fact that so many black lives are still being "ruthlessly suppressed and exploited, degraded..." a century later is a shameful realization of how little we've learned. For those who do not learn from the past, history is destined to repeat itself.

Between the deconstruction/reconstruction of my faith and the racial, economic, and justice issues brought to a head by this presidential election, I have wrestled with how I might best invest my energies and talents. I'm finding Einstein's admonitions in this essay helpful and insightful. Thank you for making me aware of them. Appreciate the great work you're doing.

Mr. Einstein was so very insightful and for his day also courageous. Prejudice is ingrained in us as a culture and will take much effort on our parts to eradicate. If I am to be honest I see it within myself. Not only toward blacks but others. It was taught to me in the cradle and will, no doubt go with me to the grave. I fight it within myself every day. I hate that it is inside of me. I can only imagine what it is like for those who believe their prejudice to be the truth about who others really are rather than a taught evil. I carry with me white privilege, male privilege, the privilege of being an member of a country that has more natural resources than most countries combined. For me to have these things and to believe they are something I have earned rather than what they are- circumstances of birth is disingenuous at best.

"All change has its melancholy, for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves...we must die to one life before we can enter into another." Anatoly France

All hatred, prejudice, judgement we hold against another in our hearts and minds must die before we can embrace one another, brother to brother, sister to sister, white to black, Muslim to Hindu, Shi-ite to Sunni, etc.

It will not be easy, for generations have spewed the angry words before us and slung the heaving rocks for hundreds of years. It has become part of the tapestry of our social and cultural identity.

But we must! And we will! For the peace of future generations demands it!

I am so pained by the racism in America today. I am 70 years old - this article was published the year I was born. "... What, however, the man of goodwill do to combat this deep 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. ..." So sad, the children! We must stay vigilant and devoted ... To the cause & that all men are created equal - and believe in that!

I did not know this about Albert Einstein. It was good to learn that he was an advocate for civil rights.

Unfortunately, racism is alive and well, even in 2016. In 1946 life was "good" if you were in America and of caucasian decent. If you were brown or dark brown skinned life was hell. I believe that the "race" issue will NEVER be understood or solved. The barbaric nature in which blacks were brought against their will caused a deep trauma that is impossible to be rectified. Historical trauma, that has never been addressed by the "powers that be." We wonder why 136 black have been killed by police in 2016 and the year isn't close to being over. Let us address how the barbaric europeans dehumanized their slaves. They were treated worse than animals. Women treated with contempt, mothers screaming when their children were torn away from their bosom, only to be taken far away never to be seen again. Imagine for a moment , the trauma, the steering pain of not knowing ..... I believe the heart stops beating if only for a moment imagining your life moving forward without your child. trauma, trauma..... on every level. We all know the horrors of slavery, I do NOT need to expound. Has life become easier for those who have a deeper pigmentation, for those whose ancestors traveled from their homeland in chains? or for those who came unwillingly as well as fearfully? When do we start the dialogue of FINALLY dealing with the historical trauma that has plagued us for so many centuries? I believe until we address these issues we will not be able to address the issues of cops killing unarmed black men. That alone is too painful to talk about, but somehow we MUST!

I think this document could be an important part of a general discussion on race relations. Several others have mentioned that it should be used in education. No one as had any suggestions on how to actually get it out there.

I would like to know how or where I need to go to get permission to use it, and hopefully the photo as well, so I can make printed copies to hand out at all of the events my church is involved with, as well as to use it on our web page.

I would think if enough organizations, including churches, decide to do something of this sort, the essay would no longer be such an unknown item. And in some small way, it might help to move the conversation on.

My kids are now in their forties. I think they are pretty good at being unprejudiced. They attended public integrated schools their whole lives. I finished school in all white public schools. I live in a city that is more than 50% black. The black population is overwhelmingly poor and uneducated. Prejudice begets results that begets reasons for prejudice. We should practice de facto reparations by educating black children in high performing private schools.

People express surprise that I, a jewish woman and child Holocaust survivor, find beauty, wisdom, joy in German poetry and music.
Nor do I hate all Germans and my best friends were immigrants from Poland. I explain that my Uncle and his wife, both German born and Christian, brought me to Chicago after the War, and cared for me. I have made friends with many young people from Germany who volunteer for eighteen months in Jewish Retirement Homes. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I never once heard any adult say that all people of a certain race, religion, nationality are evil. Nor has that been my personal experience.
Einstein is right when he states that what you are taught in childhood tends to cement itself in the brain. It takes persistent critical
thinking to dislodge learned prejudice and open the door to positive encounters with people targeted for rejection.

We must lead our students, ages 4 to 18 in a civil dialogue on the subject. School and schooling is under used. What better place to allow our children to learn how to discuss issues in a civil manner, meaning how to listen to the ideas and feelings of others....truly and deeply listen and then think/reason about what is heard and express him/her self. The other part of this is that in order to listen deeply one must practice listening to oneself. What do you think and feel when you hear the word negro?

Einstein is a slam poet....

Thank you ,Mr. Gilliss ,so very much for bringing Albert Einstein,s writing to our attention!
It should be required reading in every school.
I,now 79 years old,will bring it for sure ,into the life of my 7 grandchildren.
My deep gratitude to you,Krista ,and all who enrich our lives greatly through their sharing through : On Being!

I am also an immigrant, definitely not as qualified as Monsieur Einstein, however I have observed that discrimination has existed since the beginning of this nation. Almost all ethnic groups of color have felt the "pit in the stomach" feeling of being identified as less than. In identified parts of the county equality is "more or less" the norm. I have also observed discrimination Within ethnic groups, for example, and I am generalizing , Latinos born in the US , demonstrate a sense of superiority to Immigrant Latinos. I don't have an answer, I just continue to open minds and hearts to the uniqueness of each one of us.

Einstein hadn't experienced much TV if any when he wrote this, you have to wonder how many movies or radio shows he'd listened to. The mass media is probably the most influential thing in promoting racism and prejudice, today, just as people in the media like to assert that it is a major influence in diminishing racism. I would guess that children, these days, spend far more hours listening to and watching entertainment programs than they do listening to their adult relatives, other children, certainly more than they spend listening to teachers and beyond any rational adult, listening to anyone in the context of church. It is the primary vehicle for the transmission of racism today. America was driven to new levels of hatred of Latinos and Muslims from what they took in from TV and the movies and hate-talk radio, cable TV shows are some of the worst as are hate-talk radio. The mass media is the primary venue for teaching hate and it does. Whatever role it has for the positive is more than countered by its selling of paranoia and hatred and largely for the political benefit of right-wing politicians and the oligarchic elite that runs the media.

Dr. Albert Einstein is a genius. The genius of a human lies not in his professional achievements rather on his personal understanding of fellow men and women. Dr. Albert Einstein is truly a complete genius.

The American political system is really at the very basis of our condemnation of American racism. The political system is such that allows whites to manipulate and control the reaction of black and other minorities. In the 1800s it was done through lynching and other assorted violence. Whenever black advanced economically, there were enough KKK members to go and disrupt things and actually take possessions of homes, land, businesses.

Today, in a more sophisticated society, it takes on different forms of violence and disruption. But I am beginning to think that the real culprit is no longer just blacks but the poor and the disabled in general.

This is a country that seems to refuse to care for its people the way a real country should. Even infrastructures are now viewed as things we cannot afford simply because they make life more bearable for the poor. The rich can take of themselves. But this lack of caring is most visible in the way healthcare has been conceived in this country as a for profit business that will enrich the mostly white rich population. Too many obstacles keep people from being able to access good healthcare in a systematic and continuous manner

Think of the kind of mental and spiritual disruption that must be taking place in people's lives now that what tiny achievement was made in healthcare is being threatened to be taken away.

It is a miserable system… in spite of it great promise. The ability of the poor to really have a say in the governance of that system has been gravely reduced with laws that are protective of the rich and the powerful.

Excellent essay. Thanks for making it available here. One sometimes forgets that Einstein was a champion of human rights.

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