2004 Commencement Address:
Justice Alan C. Page

Author: Justice Alan C. Page


Father Malloy, members of the board of trustees, Class of 2004let me begin by saying thank you.Thank you for the warmth of your reception as well as the honor you bestow upon me.Thank you also for allowing me to share my thoughts with you on this special day. It is good to be back in this magical place with its rich history and tradition. Who would have thought this moment possible? Certainly, 37 years ago, when I was sitting outtherewith you, I dont think it would have occurred to anyone present at the time. Over the years, I have never been quite sure that I am worthy of this kind of recognition. Although it reinforces and validates the things I havetried to do, this kind ofrecognition has always made me a little bituncomfortable.p. In Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote,I am a part of all that I have met.In that spirit, I accept this honorary degree on behalf of all those people who have been a part of making me the person that I am family members and friends who have nurtured and sustained me, the 2082 individuals who have been Page Scholars over the years who are my heroes and the life-blood of the Page Education Foundation. And most importantly, Diane Sims Page, my wife and life-mate of 31 years, who has allowed, lifted, and inspired me to be a better person than I might otherwise have been. Before I continue, I should note that, in collaboration with the Notre Dame Club of Minnesota, we have five scholars here at the University, including Andrea Manka, a member of this years graduating class.p. To today’s honorary degree recipients, I am honored to be among you.To todays graduates, let me say congratulations. I can appreciate the conflicting emotions that you are feeling. From the relief of having no more lectures, finals, or tuition… to the anticipation, coupled with a little fear, that comes with new beginnings… to the sense of accomplishment and pride that we all share this afternoon… to the fear that your graduation speaker will drone on forever, saying nothing of relevance to you.p. Indeed, it occurs to me that you may be asking yourselves,What is wrong with this picture? How is it that we have a former football player speaking at our commencement ceremony and receiving an honorary degree?After all, we know that football players are really nothing more than dumb jocks, and that defensive lineman have all been hit in the head at least one too many times. The simple fact is, long before I was a football player, my parents, who knew and understood the importance of education, made sure that I understood it also. I was lucky. They, along with other family members, were my role models. As role models, they made it clear to me, by word and deed, that if I was going to have a better life than they had, I would have to be educated and also be a good citizen. Another simple fact is that athletic achievement and academic performance are not mutually exclusive.p. Recognizing that what I say as your commencement speaker may well not be long remembered, what I would like to do is talk for a moment about the future… about hope… and ultimately the role that each of us can play in making the future better and brighter. Important to that discussion are issues of character, and issues of race.p. As you leave this great University, traveling your chosen paths, your character will be challenged. As a nation, it seems as though we have lost our character. If we are to thrive, we must regain it.p. p. The American Heritage Dictionary definescharacteras moral or ethical strength, integrity, fortitude.In a sense, character is who we are at our core. Its what determines what we believe and how we choose to respond to agiven situation. Character is not something we are born with, nor does it develop automaticallyit must be consciously developed. Character is not something that is static. Whether were 50 or 15, 5 or 75… whether were a Notre Dame graduate, asubway alum,or a Supreme Court Justice… we will be forced to re-evaluate and renew our character again and again. How we act today, and every day for the rest of our lives, will define who we are.p. People of character take responsibility for who they are and for what they do. To resist the pressures and temptations that seduce us… to make the easy choices rather than the right choices… to be a person of character… takes a strong person. I dont mean strong in the physical sense, for physical stature really has nothing at all to do with character.I do meanstrongin the sense of believing that each one of us has an obligation to act in a way that builds, rather than diminishes, our character and the character of those around us.p. That means we must be honest and trustworthysaying what we mean and meaning what we say. It means keeping our promises. It means avoiding the arrogance of power, playing fairly, telling the truth, making decisions with others in mind, always treating people with respect, and respecting ourselves. It means working to figure out the difference between right and wrong, and acting accordingly.p. The fact that I was once considered a great football player or that I am a Supreme Court Justice doesnt, by itself, mean that I am a man of good character. The fact that the color of my skin is different from yours doesnt mean I am not a man of good character. The fact that your language or religion is different from mine doesnt make either one of our characters better or worse. The outward differences, which identify us as individuals, do not define the content of our character.p. Along lifes path you will also be confronted with issues of race. Now, discussions of race are never easy. That is so, in part, because what one person may see as innocent conduct, another may see as racially motivated. Moreover, even innocent conduct can have a negative effect when it comes to issues of race. Sometimes the race card is openly and blatantly played, sometimes its use is subtle, and sometimes the card being played is not the race card at all, but the effect is such that there is a racial impact.p. Clearly, some things have changed for the better in the last 50 years. Weve taken down theWhites OnlyandColored Onlysigns, which were once clear symbols of state-sponsored apartheid. The Supreme Courts 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which was issued 50 years ago tomorrow, announced the death knell for segregation as we knew it. However, recent studies suggest that many of our schools are re-segregating. In 1965, we passed the Voting Rights Act, giving African-Americans the right to vote. Yet today, far too many African-Americans feel they have no reason to vote.p. An area of particular concern to me is our criminal justice system, which at times seems more interested in putting people of color in jail than helping them succeed.p. Shortly after I was sworn in, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued a task force reportexamining racial bias in our states judicial system. The task force found, everything else being equal: People of color are arrested more often, charged more often, given higher bails, tougher plea bargains, less fair trials, and far longer sentences. These findings are consistent with the findings of the 30 or so states that have conducted such studies. They are also sadly consistent with the findings of the Kerner Report of1968. There is something fundamentally wrong when our judicial systemthe one branch of government designed to protect individual rightspersistently denies equal justice to communities of color.p. Consider also the debate regarding affirmative action programs. Such programs are under attack from almost every cornerfrom those who the programs were meant to help to those who claim the programs are discriminatory. We seem to have lost sight of affirmative actions original purposeto help eliminate the present effects of past discrimination. The fact is, if we had equal opportunity today, we wouldnt need to talk about affirmative action.p. Now, is there active prejudice at work? Sometimes there is, sometimes not. Some of the policies and practices that lead to over-representation in our prison population and under-representation virtually everywhere else for people of color stem from well-intentioned, if naive, efforts to demonstrate that our society iscolor blind.Other policies and practices seem to result more from indifference than from outright prejudice. But whatever the reason, the outcome remains the same. While we may be better at covering up our biases, making bias harder to detect is not the same as making it go away. Living in a color-blind society should not require that we live in a society that is blind to racial bias.p. What can we do to address the issues of race that confront us? Identifying the problem and complainingisnt enough. Rhetoric without action is self-defeating. One thing we can all do is examine our own biases and set aside our stereotypical views of people who are different from us. We need to make sure that our feelings about other people are based on the individual, rather than some perceived characteristic of a racial group.p. Its all too easy to get hung up on the differences that we see on the outside. Indeed, too often, the worddifferentis a euphemism forinferior.We see people who are like us as good, and people who are different from us as bad.True understanding can only come about when we are willing to look beyond the packaging and focus on whats really important, whats inside.p. The need for true understandingand the acceptance that often followshas never been more important. In my mind, the tragic events of 11 September, 2001,stem from an inability, on some very basic level, to connect with other people. If we as a nation, and as a world of nations, are going to survive, we need to learn to live with one another.p. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this well. In a prophetic sermon from 1956, he spoke these words:More than ever before, [people] of all races and nations are today challenged to be neighborly. The call for a worldwide good-neighbor policy is more than an ephemeral shibboleth; it is the call to a way of life, which will transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment. No longer can we afford the luxury of passing by on the other side. Such folly was once called moral failure; today it will lead to universal suicide. We cannot long survive spiritually separated in a world that is geographically together…p. In the end, what does all of this have to do with you? As Notre Dame graduates, we are among the privileged few. As such, I believe we have some obligation to work to improve the lot of those who are less fortunate. Grabbing what we want for ourselves and ignoring everyone else is simply not acceptable. We can use the magic of this place to do good.p. For me, it has meant helping children understand the importance of education, motivating them in their educational pursuits, and working to provide educational opportunity. I happen to believe that children are the future, and that the future is mostly about hope. If we are to have hope for the futureour childrens and ourswe must educate our children. We must do that one school at a time, one classroom at a time, one child at a time.p. But what can you, aspiring new graduates with heavy student loans and uncertain job prospects do? Because the problems we face are complex, we tend to think in terms of complex solutions. Or we think its somebody elses problem. As a result, individual effort seems insignificant. But I believe that the steps we take individually can be significant. Ultimately, the problems we face are people problems and the solutions will be found in those of us here this afternoon. Whether it is volunteering at a homeless shelter or food shelf or assisting the disabled or working with children in schools as I do, whatever it may be, you have the power to change the future.p. Some would say the problems are too big and too complex for one person to impact. I believe those people are wrong.You dont need to be a Supreme Court Justice or even a football hero to make change happen. Everyone here, and I emphasize everyone, has the ability, the opportunity, and I believe the obligation to make this world a better place. All we have to do is act.And act we must.p. A quote from Robert F. Kennedy, taken from a speech he gave in 1966 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa on their Day of Affirmation, symbolizes for me the impact that we, as individuals, can have. It has special meaning when we consider the changes that have taken place in South Africa since 1966. What he said was this:Each time a man [and I would add a woman] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hopeand crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.p. When we put our hearts… our minds… and our bodies to the task, when we act, we can improve the lives of those less fortunate, change both our personal and our national character, and begin to address the seemingly intractable problems of race.In the process, we can change the future.p. As Dr. Seuss said in The Lorax ,Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. Its not.p. Thank you.p.

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