I’m sure my readers’ are wondering what possible connection exists between Albert Einstein, the renowned theoretical physicist who developed the general theory of relativity—and Black Lives Matters. (BLM) The connection is surprising but quite evident in reading Einstein’s “The Negro Question” (1946). In it, Einstein contends white America’s tradition of individualism and an attitude of superiority towards Blacks, especially, were more important than its “democratic political constitution.” Einstein and BLM are connected because his observations of how America perceived Black people are as true as ever.
The Negro Question:
“I am writing as one who has lived among you in America only a little more than ten 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 doing so 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 sincere persons 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 or 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 desire to maintain this unworthy condition.
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 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 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 this good cause.”
Einstein was right. However, the bigger question, arguably, is whether Black people themselves will help to sustain the BLM Movement beyond a “flavor of the day” status. BLM’s organizers and current supporters are keeping the issue alive, to win, it’ base must become much broader.
Black lives have always mattered. But a “Movement” requires much more than simply another, though very important instance of episodic outrage. Sustainable protests, together with committed allies led by Blacks, is absolutely necessary to prevail. Ultimately, however, BLM will succeed because it continues to reflect the feelings and best interests of the Black community.