Sep 21, 2010

Remarks of Steve Schwarzman at the Appeal of Conscience Dinner

Good evening. It’s a pleasure to be here this evening. Before I give my formal remarks, I’d like to say how pleased I am to be on the dais tonight with many of my good friends. 

  • In particular, I want to recognize my other honoree, John Elkann. I met John when he was probably a teenager, when my firm did some work for his family. Their chief financial advisor brought John over to meet me and I was impressed by his curiosity and quiet dignity. I’m so proud to see how he’s developed over the last few years and, although his is still a young person – particularly for the level of responsibility he has as Chairman of Fiat – he’s brought the company through a very difficult period with sensitivity, grace and strength.

  • I’ve met Prime Minister Singh many times and in fact had a fascinating lunch with him during UN week in 2008, several weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed. He predicted that India would grow over 5% in 2009, which was very bold at the time. He was correct. Our firm is very active in India where we own 12 companies and have invested over $1.2 billion in the country. In fact, I’m going to India in two weeks to chair a jury to pick the Economic Times Awards for Corporate Excellence in India along with 7 prominent India business and political figures. Prime Minister Singh will be presenting the award later in the month to the winner.

  • I’d also like to thank Muhtar Kent for participating tonight. I got to know Muhtar when he chaired our Corporate Committee at the Kennedy Center when I was Chairman there, and he does so many good works in the philanthropic area.

  • Finally, I’d like to acknowledge my friend Bernard Arnault, who traveled all the way from France just to be here for tonight’s event. Many of you will be familiar with Bernard’s remarkable achievements from buying a small, complex company in France, selling most of the parts, and then building on its fashion business to create the most remarkable luxury brand company in the world. I play tennis with Bernard in France from time to time, and what you don’t know is that he has one of the best cross-court forehands around. As you might imagine, he doesn’t like losing and I can assure you that he doesn’t lose very often, often at my expense.

It is a great honor to receive this award tonight. The values put forth by this organization – tolerance of religion – of ideals – of value systems – are at the basis of humanity and are an integral part of my own belief system. When this organization was created in the 1960s by Rabbi Schneier, this country was in the middle of a great struggle for tolerance of human rights, religious rights and freedom of expression.

These were formative years for me as my own attitudes towards tolerance and understanding were forged. The year President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which began the long process of racial integration in the United States, I was on the track team in my suburban Philadelphia public high school. I thought nothing of it at the time, but when we got to the State championships, ours was one of the few teams that was racially integrated. For the time it was unusual and I am glad to be in a world where such a thing is now standard.

I remember a few years later at college I was fortunate enough to be a finalist with two other undergraduates for a scholarship for post graduate study overseas. We had all traveled for several hours by train to be interviewed one by one by the senior partners of a prominent law firm. We got to know each other well, talking about what we had achieved at college and as a result I had a fairly good idea of who was the most qualified and most deserving candidate – unfortunately not me, by the way – but I was happy to get as far as I did. The most qualified candidate had earned simultaneous BA and MA degrees in Physics, was a male cheerleader and was 4th in the country in the NCAA gymnastics championships – and our college didn’t even have a gymnastics team. He also was Jewish like me.

A few days later the results were posted and the winner, the third candidate with the worst grades and the weakest student leadership positions, was someone from the same prep school and background as the law firm partner, and wasn’t Jewish like the other two of us. I was stunned that the process didn’t select who was unquestionably the qualified candidate, the Jewish gymnast. I was shocked then and I remain shocked today that such an event could occur, and I am committed personally to a meritocracy culture, which is one of our core principles at Blackstone.

Compared to the injustices that millions today experience as a result of discrimination and persecution, this is a minor matter, but I think everyone in the room will understand that over 40 years later I still can feel its impact.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “…a decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” was a principle of our new Democracy; today that ideal is at the heart of this groups work. Tolerance of the ideas of others, even when they do not agree with one’s own, whether it is political, economic policy, or the practice of one’s religion and values still eludes many. With the advent of greater access to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, intolerance has cataclysmic possibilities for society and for human life.

How do we make people more tolerant? Intolerance has been with us since the beginning of the time. History is replete with examples of atrocities and cruelties over the centuries resulting from one group in society’s hatred of another group. Organizations such as the Appeal of Conscience Foundation have made progress, but we have more to do.

As we know, there is no single solution. But I believe that an investment in education, particularly for those currently denied an adequate education, leads to greater understanding and provides a first step in breaking stereotypes that cause so many to lump people into rigid categories. Education lifts the downtrodden, inspires one to see perspectives beyond their own and provides the tools with which to make one’s own sound judgments. When deprived of these tools – either due to poverty or living in societies where proper education is non-existent or is denied, bigotry breeds more freely.

I imagine many attendees this evening are of Irish, Polish, or Italian ancestry whose forebears arrived in this country and who got their foot on the first rung of the American dream in the Catholic School system. This system set out to give a first rate education to the children of immigrants, many of whose parents were barely literate. Thanks to the education provided by the nuns and brothers of the Catholic teaching orders, so many children and grandchildren of working men and women have gone on to university and professional lives and have taken their place as leaders in all walks of American life.

When you read the history of the United States in the 19th Century and the anti Catholic prejudice that suffused much of our society that confronted these new immigrants, that prejudice seems almost incomprehensible now as we are in the opening decade of the 21st century. Education played a pivotal role in changing people’s attitudes.

Our public institutions also have to play a role in creating a more tolerant society and our business, civic and religious leaders need to support those institutions. Our public libraries in New York City, which are housed across all five boroughs, in rich neighborhoods and poor, are accessible to anyone who chooses to enter. Thanks to technology, the circle of access is even wider. Books and catalogs of learning are now available in homes, free to the public. The rich promise of knowledge, the means to discover things and perspectives you did not know, is a healing balm to hatred and resentment.

A society free of intolerance is probably a Utopia. But a society more tolerant than the one we have now is not.

Our history and the history of the world is one of slow, often painfully interrupted, progress to a better, more tolerant world. Would any student of European history looking at the wreckage of that continent in 1945, and thinking back on its thousands of years of bloody history, have predicted the European Union and the integration of the nations of Europe into a peaceful whole?

I am proud of the work of the Appeal of Conscience – it has a vital mission in this world. Things are getting better and will get better. I know we have much to do and I am committed to staying involved and to encouraging my peers get involved.