It has struck like a bolt from the blue: Albert Einstein – known predominantly as a scientist, but also as a humanitarian – wrote racist comments about Asians.
Einstein’s recently published travel diaries, written between October 1922 and March 1923, record Einstein’s Asia tour. On that tour, Einstein encountered Indians in Colombo, in present-day Sri Lanka, writing disparagingly about their “primitive lives.” The people of Colombo “live in great filth and considerable stench at ground level,” he wrote. “[They] do little, and need little. The simple economic cycle of life.”
Senior editor and assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project, Ze’ev Rosenkranz, said that Einstein believed that “the climate [in the Indian subcontinent] prevents them from thinking backward or forward by more than a quarter of an hour.”
Still, Einstein added that his own kith and kin would probably have been the same had they lived in such a climate.
The book’s editor told India Today that the observations by the renowned scientist implied his then-belief in the controversial concept of “geographical determinism” leading to “intellectual inferiority.”
“The dominant racist theory of the period from about 1850 to 1950 was a biological argument,” wrote James M. Blaut, professor of anthropology and geography in the University of Illinois at Chicago. This theory was leveraged, predominantly by white racial groups, to explain their supposed biological superiority and their right to dominate other racial groups. Geographical determinism propounds that human activity and nature is determined by their geographical conditions.
Einstein’s diary observations were not limited to Indians.
Chinese were “industrious, filthy, obtuse people,” he wrote. As per media reports, he further added, “[The] Chinese don’t sit on benches while eating, but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods.”
Among the Asian countries he traveled to, the scientist seemed to have admiration only for the Japanese. “Japanese unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing,” he wrote.
“[Einstein’s comments are] kind of in contrast to the public image of the great humanitarian icon,” Ze’ev Rosenkranz told The Guardian. “I think it’s quite a shock to read those and contrast them with his more public statements. They’re more off guard, he didn’t intend them for publication.”
Even so, the early views of the scientist are at odds with his subsequent beliefs.
In the 1940s, Einstein won fame for condemning racism in the United States, where the black population were forced to use segregated public and private facilities in a society dominated by whites, their erstwhile “masters.”
By then, Einstein (and the world) was informed by the horrors Nazism had inflicted in the name of race. In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party came to power, Einstein, a German-born Jew, renounced his German citizenship. Violent persecution of Jews would soon follow, ending in the “Final Solution,” the mass murder of Europe’s Jews, which took place under the cover of World War II.
In 1946, Einstein broke his self-imposed rule of not speaking at universities in order to visit Lincoln University in Pennsylvania – the first to allow black men to study. There, addressing the students, he said that racial segregation “is not a disease of colored people, but a disease of white people.”