Peggy Keener: A caste system of a different kind

Published 5:47 pm Friday, March 22, 2024

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I recently finished reading the book “Caste – The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson. It is a book all Americans should read; a book that teaches us about us. I am not in the habit of quoting verbatim from another person’s writings, but in this book there is a fascinating story about Albert Einstein which I would like to repeat for you:

“In December of 1932, one of the smartest men who ever lived landed in America on a steamship with his wife and their thirty pieces of luggage as the Nazis bore down on their homeland of Germany. Albert Einstein, the physicist and Nobel laureate, had managed to escape just in time. The following month after Einstein left, Hitler was appointed chancellor.

“In America Einstein was astonished to discover that he had landed in yet another caste system, one with a different scapegoat caste, but with embedded hatreds that were not so unlike the one he had just fled.

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“The worst disease is the treatment of the Negro,” he wrote in 1946. “Everyone who freshly learns of this state of affairs at a maturer age feels not only the injustice, but the scorn of the principle of the Fathers who founded the United States that ‘all men are created equal.’”

He could “hardly believe that a reasonable man can cling so tenaciously to such prejudice,” he said.

He and his wife, Elsa, settled in Princeton, New Jersey, where he took a professorship at the university and observed firsthand the oppression face by black residents who were consigned to the worst parts of town, to segregated movie houses, to servant positions, and in the words of his friend Paul Robeson, “forced into bowing and scraping to the drunken rich.”

A few years into his tenure, the opera singer Marian Anderson, a renowned contralto born to the subordinated caste, performed to an overflow crowd at McCarter Theatre in Princeton and to rapturous praise for her “complete mastery of a magnificent voice.” But the Nassau Inn in Princeton refused to rent a room to her for the night. Einstein, learning of this, invited her to stay in his home. From then on, she would stay at the Einstein residence whenever she was in town, even after Princeton hotels began accepting African-American guests. They would remain friends until his death.

“Being a Jew myself, I perhaps can understand and empathize with how black people feel as victims of discrimination,” he told a family friend.

He grew uncomfortable with the American way of pressuring newcomers to look down on the lowest caste in order to gain acceptance. Here was one the most brilliant men who ever lived refusing to see himself as superior to people he was being told were beneath him.

“The more I feel I am an American, the more this situation pains me,” Einstein wrote. “I can escape the feelings of complicity in it only by speaking out.”

And so he did. He co-chaired a committee to end lynching. He joined the NAACP. He spoke out on behalf of civil rights activists, lending his fame to their cause. Furthermore, he rarely accepted the many honors that came his way. But in 1946, he made an exception for Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania. He agreed to deliver the commencement address and to accept an honorary degree there.

On that visit, he taught his theory of relativity to physics students and played with the children of black faculty, among them the son of the university president, a young Julian Bond, who would go on to become a civil rights leader.

“The separation of the races is not a disease of the colored people,” Einstein told the graduates at commencement, “but a disease of the white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.”

He became a passionate ally of the people consigned to the bottom. “He hates race prejudice,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “because as a Jew he knows what it is.”