Albert Einstein’s racism is all relative

Einstein has been labelled a racist after “offensive” views of Chinese were found in his newly published private diaries. But if we use the standards of contemporary political correctness, very few people in the past would not be considered racist

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 6:21am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 8:27am

Shock, shock, shock! Albert Einstein was a racist because he had low opinions about Chinese as a race.

His “offensive” views were found in his newly published private diaries, translated into English, which detailed his tour of Asia in the 1920s. Could you be racist – or discriminatory in general – when you were only writing in your own private diaries, which is like talking to yourself in your own head?

If so, we are well into the territory of “thought crime”. If we use the standards of contemporary political correctness, very few people in the past would pass muster.

Einstein described Chinese as “industrious, filthy and obtuse”. To be fair, he also thought badly of most other Asians, except Japanese, of whom he thought highly.

Einstein's travel diaries reveal racist views of Chinese: industrious, filthy and obtuse

“I noticed how little difference there is between men and women; I don’t understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess … It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

There are more unflattering observations on Indians and Asian women. Suppose Einstein wrote highly of Chinese, would that have made his observations any more accurate and less misguided – or equally shallow, only in the opposite direction?

His new-found critics, including Ze’ev Rosenkranz, the editor and translator of the diaries, have called him “racist”, “xenophobic” and “misogynistic”.

The misogyny we have known for a long time, especially Einstein’s treatment of women in his life. Now we can add racism.

So far, so what? Einstein was a deeply flawed human being. Should that surprise anyone who knows something of human nature. Only saints are saints. W B Yeats famously wrote: “The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work …”

Racism, trolling and the dark side of Star Wars fandom

In an influential book on relativity theory, Max Born, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, called general relativity “a perfect work of art”. If we follow Yeats’ equation, then the discoverer of relativity must be less than perfect; and so he was.

Some feminists and anti-racial activists like to sniff everywhere for the least hint of impropriety.

There is a big difference between words and deeds. Published words are closer to deeds, if they incite actions in others. But private thoughts, which those diary entries clearly were, are subjects of self-conversation. They are preliminary and ever changing.

I would not be surprised if those “racist” comments weren’t even his final thoughts.