The Guardian appearance on Albert Einstein: chargeless cerebration and common attitudes | Editorial

Albert Einstein’s humanitarian reputation almost matches his scientific stature. From the 1930s onwards he vigorously denounced racism, “a disease of white people”, once observing that “being a Jew myself, perhaps I can understand and empathise with how black people feel as victims of discrimination”. So it is especially shocking to learn of racist and misogynist comments that he made while travelling in Asia in the 1920s. In his newly published diaries from the period, he describes the Chinese as “industrious, filthy, obtuse” and “a peculiar herd-like nation”. Though he praises their modesty and gentleness, he also echoes contemporary warnings that they posed a demographic threat: “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

How could a figure renowned for his empathy and wisdom have written such passages? The answer “seems very relevant in today’s world, in which the hatred of the Other is so rampant in so many places … It seems even Einstein sometimes had a very hard time recognising himself in the face of the other,” the diaries’ editor notes.

Such views were prevalent at the time – but far from universal. Those common prejudices clearly influenced Einstein. A personal evolution may have helped him escape them. But how striking that he could see so little and express such bigotry when he thought so freely in his work, and so energetically challenged prejudice outside it.