Ask any writer if he finds the act of writing fun and he will give you a look that speaks of mindless cursors blinking in silent and unrelenting repetition.
But suggest to that same writer that you want him to yield his space to a guest writer and you see a fierce gaze of imminent combat. The guest writer becomes the enemy, a person arriving on the scene with an ax to grind, a gimmick to sell. He should buy an ad or write a letter to the editor.
Sometimes, as a compromise, a writer will agree to interview the would-be contributor, filtering the outsider’s views through a series of convenient variations on “he said” and “according to.” It is as if Ed Sullivan welcomed Elvis Presley to his television show and then stood by holding the microphone while Presley belted out “Hound Dog.” In case you couldn’t guess, we journalists like to be in control.
All that said, and with Martin Luther King Day looming, allow me to yield my space to a man who needs no introduction:
The Negro Question
by Albert Einstein
I am writing as one who has lived among you in America only a little more than 10 years. And I am writing seriously and warningly. Many readers may ask:
“What right has he to speak about things which concern us alone, and which no newcomer should touch?”
I do not think such a standpoint is justified. One who has grown up in an environment takes much for granted. On the other hand, one who has come to this country as a mature person may have a keen eye for everything peculiar and characteristic. I believe he should speak out freely on what he sees and feels, for by so doing he may perhaps prove himself useful.
What soon makes the new arrival devoted to this country is the democratic trait among the people. I am not thinking here so much of the democratic political constitution of this country, however highly it must be praised. I am thinking of the relationship between individual people and of the attitude they maintain toward one another.
In the United States everyone feels assured of his worth as an individual. No one humbles himself before another person or class. Even the great difference in wealth, the superior power of a few, cannot undermine this healthy self-confidence and natural respect for the dignity of one’s fellow-man.
There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious; but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the “Whites” toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.
Many a sincere person will answer: “Our attitude towards Negroes is the result of unfavorable experiences which we have had by living side by side with Negroes in this country. They are not our equals in intelligence, sense of responsibility, reliability.”
I am firmly convinced that whoever believes this suffers from a fatal misconception. Your ancestors dragged these black people from their homes by force; and in the white man’s quest for wealth and an easy life they have been ruthlessly suppressed and exploited, degraded into slavery. The modern prejudice against Negroes is the result of the desire to maintain this unworthy condition.
The ancient Greeks also had slaves. They were not Negroes but white men who had been taken captive in war. There could be no talk of racial differences. And yet Aristotle, one of the great Greek philosophers, declared slaves inferior beings who were justly subdued and deprived of their liberty. It is clear that he was enmeshed in a traditional prejudice from which, despite his extraordinary intellect, he could not free himself.
A large part of our attitude toward things is conditioned by opinions and emotions which we unconsciously absorb as children from our environment. In other words, it is tradition — besides inherited aptitudes and qualities — which makes us what we are. We but rarely reflect how relatively small as compared with the powerful influence of tradition is the influence of our conscious thought upon our conduct and convictions.
It would be foolish to despise tradition. But with our growing self-consciousness and increasing intelligence we must begin to control tradition and assume a critical attitude toward it, if human relations are ever to change for the better. We must try to recognize what in our accepted tradition is damaging to our fate and dignity — and shape our lives accordingly.
I believe that whoever tries to think things through honestly will soon recognize how unworthy and even fatal is the traditional bias against Negroes.
What, however, can the man of good will do to combat this deeply rooted prejudice? He must have the courage to set an example by word and deed, and must watch lest his children become influenced by this racial bias.
I do not believe there is a way in which this deeply entrenched evil can be quickly healed. But until this goal is reached there is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the service of the good cause.
Editor’s note: Born in Germany in 1879, the son of an engineer who manufactured electrical equipment and a stay-at-home mother, Albert Einstein presented his “Theory of Relativity” in 1905 and received a Nobel Prize in physics in 1921. In the face of Nazi persecution (which included a public burning of his books), Einstein moved to the Institute for Advanced Study in 1933.
During his time in Princeton, Einstein publicly supported the struggles of Paul Robeson, whom he met in 1935 when Robeson returned to his hometown to perform at McCarter Theater. The scientist and the athlete-scholar-performer later co-chaired the American Crusade to End Lynching.
When singer Marian Anderson arrived in town in 1937 to perform at McCarter Theater and was unable to reserve a room at the Nassau Inn, Einstein invited her to stay at his house at 112 Mercer Street.
Einstein declined numerous requests to speak at college graduation ceremonies, calling them “ostentatious.” But he did agree to speak in 1946 at Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, an historically black college:
“My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause,” Einstein told the assembled graduates. “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.”
Einstein’s article above appeared in 1946 in Pageant Magazine and was reprinted in “Einstein on Race and Racism,” a book published in 2005 by Fred Jerome, who also wrote “The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret War Against the World’s Most Famous Scientist,” and Rodger Taylor, a librarian with the New York Public Library.
Jerome and Taylor also quoted Einstein’s statement to a 1950 conference at Atlanta University to oppose discrimination in southern colleges:
“If an individual commits an injustice he is harassed by his conscience. But nobody is apt to feel responsible for misdeeds of a community, in particular, if they are supported by old traditions. Such is the case with discrimination . . . Only by spreading education among all of our people can we approach the ideals of democracy. Your fight is not easy, but in the end, you will succeed.”