When I was a little boy, I remember hearing a loud explosion, looking out my window and seeing a cross burning in front of the Catholic church. My mom, a daughter of the American Revolution whose relatives had been senators and military officers, and my dad, a first generation Italian born to immigrant parents, both told me not to be afraid. They told me it was just people who liked to party on Friday nights. (By setting off dynamite and burning crosses?)
By the time I was a teenager, the terrorism toward Catholics had reached a new peak as the first Catholic was elected president and the United States traditionalists said that the Pope would literally take over running Washington. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and, in fact, John F. Kennedy became one of the most beloved presidents to serve our country. (Of course, he was also assassinated.)
As an adult, I once asked my mother if she ever knew anyone who was in the Ku Klux Klan, and she very casually said, “Only my dad when he was young.”
Growing up It was not unusual to hear derogatory remarks about the Italians, Irish, Jews, and African Americans. Interestingly, however, that bigotry had not been a major part of my high school experience. I honestly believe that was because most of the African Americans, Irish, Slovaks, and Italians were working in the coal mines, and if you were a bigot in a coal mine, the only thing your working partner had to do to get you killed was to walk away from impending danger without letting you know.
It was not until I began teaching that I saw total and complete, blatant prejudice. It was devastating and disgusting. In fact, it was not only among the students but also from some of the teachers toward the students. Consequently, I began to treat my non-white students from the Philippines, China, African American, or LGBT very special.
I was their guy, and it was easy for me because, as a musician, I didn’t see differentiators and didn’t care. All I wanted to know was how they played their instrument.
My liberal approach to these minority kids became so obvious to them that one of my gifted African American students came into my office one day and said, “Mr. Jacobs, I need to tell you something.” To which I responded, “Sure, Alicia.” She went on to say that her friends designated her to tell me to stop treating the minority kids so differently. She said, “Mr. Jacobs, we just want to be treated the same as everyone else.” That girl was 13 years old, but she taught me a lesson that has lasted for my entire life.
As the president of a research institute with brilliant scientists from all over the world, and as a student at one of the most diverse schools in America, Carnegie Mellon, I saw first-hand that intelligence, ability, and more importantly work ethic, drive, and ambition was not limited to only one race.
The only thing one has to do is watch some of the reality TV shows to see messed up people, and that’s not race based. There are gifted, kind, and not so kind people of all races.
That statement “of all races” is really where the problem begins. There truly is only one race, the human race, and liking people because of skin pigmentation, hair texture, eye shapes, or any other differentiator is a nonstarter for any of us, but hatred is definitely taught.
Some of the absolutely most beautiful people in this world are amalgams of all races, colors, and creeds. So, if you’re a hater, look in the mirror and try to determine what it is you hate. It may be looking back at you.
As Albert Einstein that famous Jewish scientist said, “What a sad era when it’s easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.”