The sockless scientist who knew how it felt to be in a black man's shoes
Book review by Andrew Robinson*
(Published on THES: 28 October 2005)
Title: Einstein on Race and Racism
Author(s): Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor
Reviewer: Andrew Robinson
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, 2005
ISBN: 0 8135 3617 0
When Albert Einstein was named "Person of the Century" in a special millennium issue of Time magazine, the publication devoted four articles to his life and work. But the sole reference to his decade-long public campaign against racism in the US was a single passing phrase.
It was a significant omission - all the more surprising coming from the land that invented political correctness - that also occurs in almost every one of the dozens of books about Einstein. They contain plenty on his anti-Nazism, but virtually nothing on his anti-racism. Einstein's leading biographer, Abraham Pais, does not mention even Einstein's friendship with, and courageous public support for, the singer and activist Paul Robeson. Einstein on Race and Racism aims to break this taboo and draw attention to an important aspect of Einstein's political and social views that still poses a challenge for his adopted country.**
The two authors are a veteran journalist and science writer, Fred Jerome, who recently published a riveting expose of the top-secret investigation of Einstein by the FBI in the 1950s ordered by its notorious director J. Edgar Hoover, and Rodger Taylor, an African-American librarian with the New York Public Library. In a punchy preface, they write of the Einstein myth of "the world's most brilliant scientist (who) is also a kindly, lovably bumbling grandfather figure: Professor Genius combined with Dr Feelgood!"
They comment: "Opinion-moulders, looking down from their ivory towers, may have concluded that such an appealing icon will help the great unwashed public feel good about science, about history, about America. Why spoil such a beautiful image with stories about racism, or for that matter with any of Einstein's political activism?"
There is a surfeit of books on race published by American university presses. But this one is unique and deeply interesting. For Einstein was a man with extensive experience of anti-Semitism in Germany from the 1920s onwards. Einstein knew virulent racism first hand, and he could recognise it in the US, too, whether it was lynching in Georgia or the less violent segregation in his own back yard in Princeton, New Jersey.
As the whole world knows, Einstein was an early refugee from Nazi Germany; at the top of the Nazis' most-wanted list, he escaped from the land of his birth in late 1932 in the nick of time, evading assassination by official thugs. As a direct result of anti-Semitism, he became active in the Zionist movement in the early 1920s, and was invited to become president of Israel in 1952.
"Is there any relation between anti-Negro sentiment and anti-Semitism?" a US interviewer asked Einstein. "Only that it is part of the continuing story of man's inhumanity," he replied. "As far back as Greek times, people kept slaves. The only difference then was that the slaves were white people and therefore could not be (attacked) due to racial differences. Yet, the Greek philosophers declared these slaves to be inferior. They, too, were deprived of their liberty. However, being a Jew myself, perhaps I can understand and empathise with how black people feel as victims of discrimination."
"What do you think can be done in the long run to solve the problem?" the interviewer asked. "Well, there is no magic solution. I would only hope that where there is a will there is a way. I think probably that Americans will have to realise how stupid this attitude is and how harmful it is, also, to the standing of the United States. After all, every country is supposed to be looking up to this country. But I think that if individuals are really honest with themselves about this problem, they would undoubtedly recognise how wrong this bias really is."
Jerome and Rodgers are pioneers in researching and describing Einstein's relationships with black people in Princeton, where he lived from 1933 until his death in 1955. They have interviewed some two dozen locals with personal knowledge of Einstein. Not only did he frequently stop for a chat with adults and children while out on his walks in his famously sockless shoes, he also became involved with the black community by attending arts events and political meetings. When the internationally celebrated opera diva Marian Anderson came to sing in Princeton in 1937 and was denied a room at the whites-only Nassau Inn, Einstein invited her to stay with him.
The town of Princeton and its university were then bastions of segregation. Its schools were the last in New Jersey to integrate educationally. Although attitudes were more liberal at the Institute for Advanced Study (which was not part of the university), where Einstein worked, there were clear signs of prejudice. Robert Oppenheimer, the director, did not encourage fraternisation between scientists and those in lower-level positions, who were usually non-white. The IAS physicist Freeman Dyson tells Jerome that in the late 1940s he used to eat regularly at a black-owned restaurant in Princeton and received a letter from Oppenheimer's secretary saying that this was inappropriate for faculty. Dyson never found out if Oppenheimer knew of the letter, but suspected he did [ironically, Oppenheimer – himself born of German-Jewish parents - in 1953 experienced a three week hearing before a Personnel Security Board, after the U. S. government withdrew his security clearance. Although there was little basis for the charges - originated from half-truths and rumors about political orientations of past colleagues - the Atomic Energy Commission upheld the withdrawl].
This new local material grounds Einstein's national statements on anti-racism most effectively, showing that he lived what he preached.
Hence, his rare moral authority - and the interest in him during this Einstein Year. Tyrants and racists such as Hoover, who well knew that he must keep his shameful and futile probe of America's most famous refugee absolutely quiet, or Senator Joseph McCarthy, who branded Einstein a "disloyal American", feared Einstein and the bad publicity he could bring them. In 1951, Einstein offered to testify in court as a character witness for the civil-rights activist and scholar W. E. B. du Bois. When du Bois's lawyer communicated this fact to the judge, the case against his 83-year-old client was immediately dropped. In 1953, when Einstein at last spoke out bluntly in The New York Times about the culture of fear among public servants and intellectuals, the controversy he stirred up helped to precipitate McCarthy's fall.
Jerome and Taylor deserve all praise for publishing such a thorough but readable book on a neglected and distasteful subject. Even though half a century has passed, and the Ku Klux Klan has not burned a cross in Princeton since the 1980s, Einstein's humane defence of freedom and civil rights remains only too depressingly topical.
* Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The Times Higher, published Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity in 2005 to celebrate the relativity centenary.
** Walter Isaacson has since published an exhaustive biographical account (Einstein – His Life and Universe, 2007), where Einstein’s anti-racist stance is well documented and properly highlighted.