Einstein’s controversial views on race

Albert Einstein’s travel diaries that he maintained on his travels in China and Japan and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1922-1923 have just been published and they contain descriptions of what he saw that are deeply at odds with the enlightened views we normally associate with him. He makes statements that can at best are described as xenophobic and at worst as racist.

Written between October 1922 and March 1923, the diaries see the scientist musing on his travels, science, philosophy and art. In China, the man who famously once described racism as “a disease of white people” describes the “industrious, filthy, obtuse people” he observes. He notes how the “Chinese don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods. All this occurs quietly and demurely. Even the children are spiritless and look obtuse.” After earlier writing of the “abundance of offspring” and the “fecundity” of the Chinese, he goes on to say: “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

Further passages in the diaries, which are thought to have been written for Einstein’s stepdaughters in Berlin while he and his wife were travelling in Asia, Spain and Palestine, and as an aide memoire, see him writing of the Chinese that “even those reduced to working like horses never give the impression of conscious suffering. A peculiar herd-like nation [ … ] often more like automatons than people.” He later adds, in Rosenkranz’s words, “a healthy dose of extreme misogyny” to his xenophobia with the observation: “I noticed how little difference there is between men and women; I don’t understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess which enthrals the corresponding men to such an extent that they are incapable of defending themselves against the formidable blessing of offspring”.

In Colombo in Ceylon, Einstein writes of how the locals “live in great filth and considerable stench at ground level” adding that they “do little, and need little. The simple economic cycle of life.”

Oddly enough, there are people in China who defend his early disparaging views, saying that he was merely describing the state of affairs that existed then. To some extent, the diaries help buttress the Chinese government’s assertion that before the Communist revolution in 1949, China was a backward and poverty-stricken country. The description of life in Sri Lanka at that time has also been defended as simply reflecting the reality.

I think that is too charitable. Yes, both China and Sri Lanka were poorer countries then and the people did live in greater squalor. But the tone of Einstein’s diaries reveals something more deep-seated according to Ze’ev Rosenkranz, senior editor and assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology

“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. The disquieting comment that the Chinese may ‘supplant all other races’ is also most revealing in this regard,” writes Rosenkranz.

“Here, Einstein perceives a foreign ‘race’ as a threat, which … is one of the characteristics of a racist ideology. Yet the remark that must strike the modern reader as most offensive is his feigning not to understand how Chinese men can find their women sufficiently attractive to have offspring with them. In light of these instances, we must conclude that Einstein did make quite a few racist and dehumanising comments in the diary, some of which were extremely unpleasant.”

It is tempting to suggest that Einstein was merely the product of his times and just saying things that all people in the west believed, but that excuse does not quite hold up.

Rosenkranz told the Guardian that although views like Einstein’s were prevalent at the time, they were not universal. “That’s usually the reaction I get – ‘we have to understand, he was of the zeitgeist, part of the time’ – but I think I tried here and there to give a broader context. There were other views out there, more tolerant views,” he said.

In his introduction, Rosenkranz writes how it is important to explore how a humanist icon such as Einstein – whose image was once used for a UNHCR campaign with the slogan “A bundle of belongings isn’t the only thing a refugee brings to his new country. Einstein was a refugee” – could have written xenophobic comments about the peoples he encountered.

“The answer to this question seems very relevant in today’s world, in which the hatred of the other is so rampant in so many places around the world,” he writes. “It seems that even Einstein sometimes had a very hard time recognising himself in the face of the other.”

What is one to make of the marked contrast with Einstein’s statement in 1946 that racism “was a disease of white people”? A cynical view is that Einstein was more frank in his private diaries than in his public statements, and thus the diaries reveal the real man. But another possibility is more charitable, that the intervening two decades saw the revelations of colonial exploitation, the rise of so many anti-colonial movements, and their brutal suppression by the European colonial powers. When you add to that the arrival of Hitler and his racist ideology that resulted in the concept of Aryan superiority that led to the murders of millions of people of ‘inferior races’ and to Einstein’s own exile, I would like to think that Einstein’s views grew more enlightened over time as he saw the horrors of racism unfold.


  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I would like to think that Einstein’s views grew more enlightened over time as he saw the horrors of racism unfold.

    We all learn, and that was a time when there was a particularly large amount of social movement on public attitudes towards racism. While great but narrow intellectual talents exist and can help promote an individual’s ignorance (if you’re only smart in one area, you might be very motivated to focus on only that one topic in which you’ve gained recognition and have the potential to gain more), I don’t see Einstein this way. To think that he would remain 1920s ignorant while the rest of the world advanced strikes me as unlikely.

    Yes, his comments were racist, but also yes, he almost certainly grew and changed over time. I doubt that he died as anti-racist and anti-sexist as I would like (though I really know almost nothing about him, so it’s possible), but social change is in large part the sum of individual changes, and I find myself thinking the more likely explanation for the disparity between his 20s racism and his 40s quote about a disease of white people is just that Einstein was no more immune to education through changes in his social milieu than any other European of the period.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Well, luckily he didn’t let his racism stop him from translating Bengali physicist Satyendra Nath Bose’s 1924 work on light quanta* from English into German, and having it published in Zeitschrift für Physik. Or from working with Bose when he visited Europe.

    *Which eventually led to integer spin particles -- bosons -- being named after him.

  3. Allison says

    Off-topic, but this passage really struck me.

    “even those reduced to working like horses never give the impression of conscious suffering. A peculiar herd-like nation [ … ] often more like automatons than people.”

    Sounds like the consequences of life-long suffering. A little like the “thousand-yard stare,” only imagine that that was all you’d ever had in life. I’m reminded of the people concentration camp inmates called “Müselmänner.” If your entire life is ongoing misery, you stop imagining any other kind of life. You develop a self that is dissociated (in the psychological sense) from the suffering, but also from any joy, either. It’s a little like C-PTSD, but become a way of life.

  4. mnb0 says

    “that excuse does not quite hold up”
    It’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation. It’s also a reminder not to be too hasty judging people -- we should realize that we ourselves very well might not have done any better.
    However Einstein still made the wrong choice. Personally I’m not that surprised, give the way he treated his wife. This

    “the enlightened views we normally associate with him”
    doesn’t apply to me.

    “Einstein’s statement in 1946 that racism “was a disease of white people”?”
    This is not very enlightened either. Non-white people were and are totally capable of racism as well.

  5. Quirky says

    We certainly can’t go easy on Einstein. We have to be consistently fair to Roseanne Barr.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @5: Context is everything. What Einstein actually said was

    There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.

  7. says

    My maternal grandpa was born in 1921.
    He wasn’t a genius physicist who had the possibility to travel the world, but a poor miner whose first trip abroad was fleeing the Nazis, yet funny enough he never said anything like that which needed to be defended by saying he was “a product of his time”.

  8. lanir says

    It is easier to recognize something that is wrong in a new culture one has just joined or been exposed to than to recognize the wrongs in ones own longstanding views or actions. More critical attention is invested in discovery than in the status quo. It’s entirely possible to have both views he expressed at the same time without having that moment where one realizes they are contradictory.

    This is how casual racism works as I understand it.

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