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Ex-Justice Alan Page on the racial divide, then and now

Race relations have been in the news more — and under more inflammatory circumstances — this year than in any other in recent memory. That underscores the need to understand the deep role racial inequity has played in U.S. history, and that however much progress has been made, there’s at least that much more left to go.

That was the essence of a keynote speech given last week by former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page in front of a sold-out luncheon presented as part of the 14th annual It’s Time to Talk: Forums on Race discussion. The forum, presented by YWCA Minneapolis, drew more than 1,400 to the Minneapolis Convention Center, the largest-ever crowd in the forum’s history.

Page, who starred for the Minnesota Vikings before going into law, said he came of age with the lessons of America’s knotty racial atmosphere all around him. Growing up, he studied the so-called “Three-Fifths Compromise” of the U.S. Constitution, observed with horror the fate of blacks such as 1955 lynching victim Emmitt Till, and devoured the details of landmark legal decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, in which the United States Supreme Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.

“I was considered to be the other by the majority,” said Page. “But I developed a sense for the real power of law. Reading about Brown v. Board of Education in the newspaper as an 8-year-old showed me that if the education system could be changed in the South, it could be changed anywhere.”

Much work to do

Despite the strides that have been made, though, Page said well-documented gaps between whites and blacks in health outcomes, educational achievement, housing discrimination and incarceration demonstrate that racial disparities in America are chronic and deeply rooted.

“The idea of equal justice under the law are not just words to me,” he said. “We have the power to ensure fairness, but for that to happen, we all must be treated equally.”

Recent events have pointed out what a volatile flashpoint race relations remain in the United States, especially in the area of criminal justice. As close to home as the July police shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, the increased frequency and awareness of incidents in which black men are shot by law enforcement has demonstrated to Page that we’re seeing the consequences of what happens when a judicial system consistently denies equal justice to communities of color.

“Excessive force from law enforcement is not new,” he said. “What’s new is that the force that’s used is so often deadly. But, equally troubling are the blanket condemnations of the police. Not all police officers are saints, but neither are all the citizens they come in contact with.”

Protests against incidents such as the Castile shooting and accusations of white privilege, however, can have the effect of further division, Page noted.

“Terms like ‘white privilege’ and ‘implicit bias,’ I’m not sure those are the best tools available — those terms are accusatory,” he said.

“What’s more helpful is for each of us to examine our own biases against people who are different from us, and to make sure that our actions are based on the individual rather than on any perceived characteristics.”

Page called on civic, business and church leaders to form alliances similar to those that worked on behalf of civil rights in the 1960s. At that time, he noted, even though the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality and Nation of Islam had disparate means of effecting change, all were after a goal of equality. “The efforts I’m seeing now are diffuse and uncoordinated,” he said.

Foremost, Page challenged communities of color to make their voices heard at their local polling places on Nov. 8.

“Voting is a powerful tool,” he said. “It’s within our power to be represented at the ballot box. There’s simply no excuse for people of color not to vote.”

About Dan Heilman

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