Emulating Einstein: An Anti-Racist Model for White People
Albert Einstein was born in Germany on March 14, 1879, the same year tens of thousands of Black American refugees engaged in a mass flight from slave states along the Mississippi River to the hopefully better pastures of Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma. This event became known as the Exodus of 1879.
Although slavery technically ended in 1865, Black people still needed to escape the pervasive racial violence perpetrated by White supremacists in the years that followed. Southern Black people were also exhausted from the discriminatory laws known as the Black Codes, which effectively rendered Black people second-class citizens and prevented them from advancing economically. These laws included prohibiting the sale and lease of land to Black people. At the same time, private banks and businesses often increased their prices and interest rates for Black customers.
These racist laws and practices combined to create generations of struggle for Black Americans — those who remained in the South, as well as the traumatized refugees who’d fled.
These injustices persisted because White folks allowed them to. One rare exception was Albert Einstein.
Einstein’s anti-racist philosophy
As a German Jewish immigrant who had narrowly escaped Nazi Germany, Einstein understood that the mistreatment and abuse of his fellow human beings should never be tolerated. He was an outspoken and regular critic of the Nazis, who in turn, placed a bounty on his head and assassinated his colleagues.
Einstein moved to America and brought with him his philosophy that it was never okay to be a bystander to society’s injustices. It wasn’t enough for Einstein that someone was just not an anti-Semite. It wasn’t enough to just not be racist. Einstein believed that you either were part of the solution or you were part of the problem. And he knew that his platform as the world’s leading scientist must be used not only to advance science, but for social justice. He knew his power could not go to waste.
As his international reputation grew, Einstein began speaking out even more.
In multiple public appearances and interviews, he advocated for an end to militarism and for the Jews to be able to return to their homeland Israel and have a safe place free from persecution. He once stated proudly, “I’m really doing whatever I can for the brothers of my race who are treated so badly everywhere.”
Einstein took that same passion to amplify his message about social justice and American racism against Black people.
“Being a Jew myself, perhaps I can understand and empathize with how Black people feel as victims of discrimination,” he said in one interview. Einstein wasn’t satisfied with riding his fame. He was an anti-racist.
Einstein’s first critique of American racism came even before he moved to the U.S., where he had become a vocal critic of one of the greatest injustices perpetrated in America: the Scottsboro Boys trial. Nine Black teenagers were falsely accused of raping two White women. Eight were convicted and sentenced to death without a fair trial.
Despite receiving overwhelming criticism for his outspoken stances, Einstein wasn’t deterred. Even after American industrialist and known anti-Semite Henry Ford republished vicious anti-Semitic German essays about Einstein, Einstein doubled his efforts.
Black activist and author W. E. B. Du Bois embraced Einstein’s commitment to ending racial injustice. Einstein published an important piece on racism in the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis, founded by Du Bois and other activists, including some Jews, in 1910. Einstein not only advocated for civil rights in his essay, but he encouraged Black folks to maintain their self-worth:
This … more important aspect of the evil can be met through closer union and conscious educational enlightenment among the minority … and so emancipation of the soul of the minority can be attained.
Einstein understood almost 100 years ago that racism is, at its core, a foundational stumbling block to justice and freedom.
Einstein never wavered. In 1946, he delivered the graduation commencement address for the oldest Black college in the U.S., Lincoln University, where he admonished American racist systems and once again proclaimed his commitment to anti-racist philosophy.
“There is 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,” he told the graduates.
That same year, he gave a speech to the National Urban League Annual Conference, where he continued his courageous barrage against American racism.
“It must be pointed out time and again that the exclusion of a large part of the colored population from active civil rights by the common practices is a slap in the face of the Constitution of the nation.”
Einstein’s anti-racist efforts extended to supporting organizations that worked to combat hate. He joined the NAACP and the American Crusade Against Lynching. Einstein even sought help from President Truman on race issues. Day in and day out Einstein used his place in society to advance the cause of justice.
Einstein’s anti-racist activism extended far beyond making speeches and writing essays. It went deeper than calling politicians.
Einstein refused to participate in what I call society’s obsession with racial distancing. Where most White folks do not have people of color incorporated into their after-5:00 personal lives. Where inside the four walls of White homes remain mostly all White. Where deep friendships largely remain all White.
Even as the FBI placed Einstein under close surveillance for his anti-racist activities (ring a bell, MLK?), Einstein persisted. Previously classified government documents show that the FBI had over 1,400 pages related to Einstein’s anti-racist activity. Einstein was a busy guy.
How to be more like Einstein
I get it. We all aren’t Einsteins. Most of us don’t have the platform of fame or power he had. So how can we begin to emulate this giant?
Here’s how: Many of us have some relative place of power and status, whether at our work or within our families and communities. It is in those spheres of influence where we can all engage in anti-racist advocacy.
Einstein wasn’t perfect by any means. None of us are. In his early years, in the 1920s, Einstein wrote stereotypically about Indian and Chinese people during his travels.
But what Einstein showed us even in his imperfection is that we all are capable of growth and change.
Einstein grew to ultimately believing it was a moral imperative to be an outspoken anti-racist and, in his words, own up to our “duty” to “hand on to our children [a country] purer and richer than we received it from our forebears.”
For Einstein, that meant eradicating racism and its ugly systems at every opportunity.
Stop sitting on the sidelines watching racist systemic life go by. Be an active anti-racist.
Be smart like Albert.