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Black History Month: A Reflection on Einstein’s Opinions About Racism and African-Americans

The APS Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group asked 2021 APS President S. James Gates for his thoughts during Black History Month.

February 1, 2021

What are your thoughts surrounding Einstein’s opinions about racism and African-Americans?

I’ll begin my answer by quoting from his book, “Albert Einstein: Out of My Later Years”:

"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 American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity only by speaking out.

"Many a sincere person will answer me: 'Our attitude towards Negroes is the result of unfavorable experiences, which we have had 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."

Sylvester James Gates, Jr. photo

S. James Gates, Jr.

Although Einstein was an imperfect being, as are we all, he clearly recognized the racist treatment that people of color were subjected to in the United States. The most remarkable thing about his realization was his unflinching boldness to condemn anti-black racism and the widespread belief in a "service race theory," that people of color should be judged only by their ability to serve others, and, therefore, subject to unequal treatment in society. Moreover, Einstein’s concern about racism was evident during his interactions with W.E.B. DuBois, civil rights activist, historian, and a founder of the NAACP. Einstein later put his thoughts to words in an editorial published by DuBois. To gain a deeper understanding of their interactions, I recommend the book “Einstein on Race and Racism.”

How do his views impact the importance of diversity in physics during the current day?

Einstein once stated that imagination is more important than knowledge because he recognized the imagination as the source from which creativity springs. In addition, he spoke about the ability of the "outsider" to bring a critical, different perspective to the solution of problems. But perhaps the best expression of his recognition of the perniciousness of racism can be distilled into a pithy quote by English mathematician Alan Turing: "Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine."

How does DELTA-PHY play a role in addressing Einstein’s concerns?

The DELTA-PHY ("change physics") webinar series began in June 2020 as a coalition of physics organizations to begin a dialogue in the community to address problems that Einstein described and regarding barriers that prevent people of color from becoming fully engaged in the physics field. During the webinars, attendees learn steps they can take toward diversifying the next generation of physicists, including the importance of having good mentors. To date, three webinars have been held, with great attendance. The next one takes place Feb. 10, from 2:30 pm to 4:30 pm. It will feature Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County and founder of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, known for its success in supporting students from diverse backgrounds as they complete STEM degrees. He will be interviewed by Dr. Willie May, Vice President for Research and Economic Development at Morgan State University. Two prestigious alumni who serve as examples of the program’s success are Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, leading COVID-19 immunologist, and Dr. Jerome M. Adams, former US Surgeon General. Go to the Moving the Needle webinar to register for the next webinar.

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