Alan Page, former Supreme Court Justice, Viking, talks eliminating racial bias in Grand Forks speech
GRAND FORKS -- Legal professionals must work to eliminate racial disparities and bias in the justice system, retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page said Thursday during a speech at the Chester Fritz Auditorium on the University of Nort...
GRAND FORKS -- Legal professionals must work to eliminate racial disparities and bias in the justice system, retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page said Thursday during a speech at the Chester Fritz Auditorium on the University of North Dakota campus.
But that first requires effort on an individual level.
“If we don’t as individuals eliminate our biases, how are we going to eliminate them collectively?” he said in an interview after his speech.
Page’s speech was followed by a panel discussion that included Paulette Brown, the first African American woman to be elected president of the American Bar Association. That talk also explored racial disparities in the judicial system, particularly among Native Americans.
The two presentations were part of the State Bar Association of North Dakota’s annual meeting.
Page, who was the first African American elected to Minnesota’s high court, stepped down last year after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. His speech Thursday traced his background and early interest in the legal profession, which was initially sparked in part by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision ending segregation in public schools.
While progress has been made since the Civil Rights era, Page said there’s work to be done.
“We’ve got to figure out how, as a society, we’re going to actually get to the point where we treat people as though we’re color blind,” Page said. “Today we’re not color blind.”
‘Power of the law’
Page’s legal career followed his time as a defensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings in the 1960s and 1970s. Fans remember him as a member of the “Purple People Eaters,” and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.
Growing up in Canton, Ohio, Page remembered hearing about lawyers driving “big fancy cars” and playing golf in the afternoons. He was also inspired by episodes of the TV show “Perry Mason.”
But there was something more to Page’s early interest in the law,
The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown vs. Board of Education when Page was 8 years old. The ruling said racial segregation in public schools violated the constitution, which Page said signaled the “death knell of that apartheid system.”
Wearing a signature bowtie on the auditorium stage, Page said that case helped him “develop a sense of the real power of the law.”
“For me that power was hope -- hope that if an educational system can be changed in the South, it could be changed anywhere, hope that fairness could prevail,” he said.
Page went to law school while playing in the NFL, graduating in 1978, according to the University of Minnesota. He was elected to the state’s Supreme Court in 1992.
Page touched on modern criminal justice issues, including instances of unarmed people of color dying in police custody. Police who abuse citizens should be held accountable, Page said, but he warned against condemning all police for the acts of a few.
Page said there is something “fundamentally wrong” when the judicial system “consistently denies equal justice to our communities of color.” He called on audience members to examine their own biases and protect judicial independence and impartiality.
“You don’t need to be a football hero or a former Supreme Court justice to make change happen,” Page said.
In the panel discussion that followed Page’s speech, Brown discussed the influence of “implicit bias” on people’s thoughts and decisions. She recalled watching westerns with her father growing up and noticing the good guys rode white horses, while bad guys rode black horses -- a “constant message” that good things were white and bad things were black.
Implicit bias is “unconscious,” Brown said, but it’s something that everyone has. She called on audience members to recognize their own biases through a “self-examination.”
Donovan Foughty, a district judge in Devils Lake, said the state’s prison and jail systems have a disproportionately high number of Native Americans.
“When you come into the Monday morning courtroom in Devils Lake, where I’m at, the courtroom is going to be filled with Native Americans,” he said. Later, Foughty said the decision to send someone to prison should not “be based on the color of their skin, it should be based on the acts he did, it should be based on his history.”