December 6, 2022

Einstein: Civil Rights Icon

Guest Opinion
By Isiah Smith, Jr. | Aug. 7, 2021

More words have been written about Albert Einstein than almost any person who has ever lived. In all those mountains of words, consisting of facts every reasonable well-educated student knows, there is almost no mention of his devotion to civil rights.

Books about Einstein continue to travel the well-trodden path of his enduring scientific contributions, his tempestuous personal life, his disheveled personal appearance, his absent-mindedness, and his poor performance as a parent and as a romantic partner. But seldom do you read a word about his disdain for America’s racial caste system, or the energy he contributed to help bring about changes.

This curious silence is no more. In “Caste,” a book all Americans should read, Isabel Wilkerson sheds a ray of light on what has been hidden — perhaps deliberately — about Einstein's engagement with reality. And in so doing, Wilkerson demonstrates why an honest examination of American history requires diverse voices and perspectives, without which the full historical picture is like an undeveloped canvas.

A few highlights: When Einstein fled Nazi Germany in 1932, he was dismayed to find in America the same horrors and evils he had escaped in Germany. His 1921 win of the Nobel Prize in physics had not insulated him from the Nazi psychosis. Neither accomplishments nor intelligence would change his destiny or elevate him to a higher caste status. So long as he remained Jewish, his fate was inevitably sealed. He would have been destined to remain trapped in Germany’s implacable caste system, or worse. 

However, Einstein narrowly managed to escape the Nazis, avoiding the concentration camps and almost certain death. Only one month after Einstein's flight to freedom, Hitler was appointed chancellor. History has recorded the horror that followed this disgraceful appointment.

The brilliant scientist found it difficult to understand how such horror arose in his homeland, but imagine his astonishment when he discovered in America yet another violent caste system, this time with a different scapegoat and different techniques but the same psychotic hatred and unspeakable violence and barbarism. One can imagine the brilliant physicist scratching his head, muttering, “Ich verstehen nicht, dass ich glauben kann.”

What Einstein couldn’t understand and had trouble believing was “that a reasonable man can cling so tenaciously to such prejudice.” The real mystery is how such a brilliant scientist could have concluded that what he was observing were the actions of reasonable men (and women)!

Irrespective of his disbelief, Einstein did what reasonably intelligent people do: He helped fight the injustices he saw and advocated for universal liberation. He involved himself in actively confronting the oppression they faced daily. He struck up a friendship with the civil rights activist, actor, singer, and athlete Paul Robeson and others.

In 1937, after performing to an audience overflowing with the upper caste — i.e., white people — the opera singer Marian Anderson, who was Black and so a member of America’s lower caste system, was refused a room at The Nassau Inn in Princeton, New Jersey. Upon finding out, Einstein, who lived in Princeton, invited her to stay in his home. From then on Anderson stayed with the Einsteins whenever she visited Princeton, even after The Nassau Inn began accepting black guests. 

Einstein began speaking out against American racism as early as 1931, using his voice and his brain. He co-chaired a committee to end lynching, joined the NAACP, spoke out in favor of civil rights activists. Every chance he got Einstein used his fabled intellect to fight for justice, as truly intelligent people throughout history have done.  He rarely accepted the many honors offered him; however, in 1946 he traveled to a historically black college, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, to deliver the commencement address and accept an honorary degree. There, he taught his relativity theory to the black students.

An interesting aside: In 1930, 45 Nazi lawyers, representing the Association of National Socialist German Jurists, visited New York. The trip was a reward for the lawyers, who had codified the Reich’s race-based legal philosophy. The announced purpose of their visit was to gain “special insight into the workings of American legal and economic life through study and lectures.” Imagine: Nazis studying the American racist system to become better racists!

The Nazis rejected parts of America’s system as too draconian, even for them, such as America's longstanding “one drop rule," in which persons with only one drop of Black blood were automatically considered Black and so consigned to the lower caste. Instead, the Nazis decreed that if one parent was German and the other Jewish, children from such unions were deemed German. In this not-so-scientific approach to ancestry, at least, it seems the U.S. “out-Nazied” the Nazis.

What kind of scientist could figure out how to measure the presence of "one drop” of Black or white blood? None but a corrupt one; the idea had no scientific basis at all. But that's hardly surprising; American literature is plagued by imbecilic books attempting to devise a means of determining whether someone was Black or white, thus demonstrating that racists are seldom Einsteins.

If he had been alive, I wonder what Einstein would have concluded following the atavistic 2016 election. Probably: “Ich verstehen das nicht.” Five years later, Herr Doktor, I can’t understand it either. And I have tried!

Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney.

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