Challenging Our Own Thinking: Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan C. Page Talks About Growing Up in the 1950s and Discrimination in America
By Sydney Boyd, Humanities in American Life Project Manager
On a Wednesday afternoon gathered together on Zoom, Dr. Faith Wambura Ngunjiri, director of the Lorentzen Center for Faith and Work and associate professor of Ethics and Leadership at the Offutt School of Business at Concordia College, opened a conversation with former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan C. Page by asking what she called a safe and gentle question: Why is it so difficult to talk about race?
“Because no one wants to be perceived as a racist,” Page replied. “But the fact is that all of us have biases built in, and the question is not whether we have bias – the question is how we as individuals and as a society deal with those biases.”
Page, who was elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1992 and inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame just a year later in 1993, has seen his share of discrimination in America. He listed the many stereotypes he has faced personally as an African American man, everything from the “lazy” and “the not too smart,” to “the big dumb football player.” But he also explained that he chooses not to focus on other people’s perceptions of who he is, but rather on how he views himself. “We all have to figure out how we judge people on what they do, not what we think they will do, or who we think they are. And until we get to know each other, that’s pretty hard to do.”
When Ngunjiri turned to questions from the remote audience about personal freedoms, Page emphasized respecting yourself, respecting others, and being honest. When he was growing up in the 1950s, Page recalled, he felt a deep sense of hurtfulness from being discriminated against, when he realized that he, too, had been discriminating against a boy in his neighborhood who everyone teased for being gay.
“One day the light went on for me,” Page remembered. “The same things that people were doing to me, I was doing to somebody else. I think it is incumbent upon all of us to, if we ever hope to get at this deep and troubling issue of race, we’re going to have to look deep inside of ourselves first. First and always.”
In Page’s mind, discrimination tends to show up in two ways; first, as obvious and intentional; second, as hidden and unintentional. And it’s this second kind that is particularly thorny because it takes root in founding principles decided by our forefathers, Page said, pointing to Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution of 1787 that declared that enslaved blacks would be counted as three-fifths of a person.
“And so how do we pull those things apart? How do we help people understand that even though they may not feel as those they have intentionally discriminated against anybody, that it was their ancestors that did that – I didn’t do that, I didn’t own slaves, I didn’t create this system – the fact is, you are in the position that you are in because of the way the system was developed,” Page said.
Lifting those who have been disenfranchised by this system means, in Page’s words, that we need to look honestly at the roles we play. “I think we tend to be, as a people, lazy, and we believe what we want to hear as opposed to challenging our own thinking.”
We have the ability to treat people based on what they do, not who we think they might be,” Page said in closing. “And when we do that, we are all better for it.”
“Brave Conversations on the Complexities of Race and Racism,” a free, public, online event held on September 30, was made possible through a collaborative partnership among North Dakota State University: College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences; the Northern Plains Ethics Institute; YWCA Cass Clay; and Humanities North Dakota. The Honorable Alan C. Page is the first speaker in “Learning the Language of Diversity and Meaningful Inclusion,” a series organized by The Northern Plains Ethics Institute and the YWCA Cass Clay. Read more about what Humanities North Dakota is doing in its Racial Justice issue of their magazine, “On Second Thought.”
This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.