On May 25th, George Floyd was killed by members of the Minneapolis Police Department, setting off what have been two weeks of peaceful protests and violent rioting. And through it all, I have not reached out to the North Cross community, nor have I reached out to our African American Affinity Group. For this, I am sorry.
The issue of race in America is 400 years old and has witnessed periods of great progress and periods of great retrenchment. Regardless, the issue of race in its many variations, often brings with it a vehemence and a vitriol that makes it the most difficult of discussions and difficult discussions are easy to avoid.
But difficulty of discussion is only one of myriad reasons why I have been unusually silent on this matter, the most prominent reason being that in my pastoral role, I cannot find the words to comfort or calm. You know me well enough over the years that right or wrong, I am rarely at a loss for words. But this one has me paralyzed.
The words I can easily summon up are words of anger, not just at the death of George Floyd, but also at a system of justice that hammers at race with a blunt instrument rather than carefully shaping a dialogue to produce significant improvements in how it treats people of color. I am angry that throughout modern politics, race has been used as a tool to get a candidate elected, either through the use of fear or by playing identity politics. And finally, I am angry that it is all too easy for people in the majority to think they are allowed to define what racism is and when racism occurs.
Words of anger are not pastoral words. They do not console victims nor are they effective at persuading people to change their views. Words of anger promote rioting and looting, which only changes the discussion from racial injustice to “law and order”. No one denies the importance of law and order. No one agrees with rioting and looting. However, they are canards, ruses used only to distract you from the deeper and more lasting issue of racism. The rioting and looting will end and if these were your primary focus, you will return to life as it was, with little substantive change.
We must recognize that for the majority of us at North Cross School, we are allowed to take certain things for granted. We don’t need to justify our innocence to a legal system, our credit worthiness to a lender, our scholarship to a highly competitive college, our gratuity to a waiter, or our appropriateness in a neighborhood to a landlord. And with this recognition, we must, as a community, choose our words to shape a dialogue, words that promote inquiry and exchange of ideas consistent with what is expected at an independent school. This is not necessarily a white conversation to lead, rather, it is for the white majority to listen, respond, and promote respect.
In retrospect, perhaps I should have been quicker to reach out to our community following the tragedy in Minneapolis. But then again, why is George Floyd any different than Michael Brown, Walter Scott, or Eric Garner? The deaths of each of these men were followed by protest and lots of well-meaning words, but little substantive change resulted. Would my early words really have made a difference? Or would they have been just salve on an institutional irritant?
For that matter, I have talked race at North Cross from my first summer on campus when I received a visit from the Roanoke Chapter of the NAACP. We have done all of the simple things to make us feel we are making a difference, and perhaps in some isolated instances, we have. I like to think that our African-American graduates are better off for their time at North Cross and that they will become future leaders. But really, what we have accomplished has been just my words and some simple plays from the Head of School playbook. It is hard to sit back and point to any real cultural shift.
So going forward, we are aware of our successes. We have tripled the number of African-American students on our campus, have an active African-American Affinity Group, national leaders in equity and inclusion have visited our campus, and African- American students play vital leadership roles on our campus. We provide a bridge for African-American students to become the thought leaders of tomorrow.
But we also recognize that there is much hard work that lies ahead. We will begin by listening and then we will do what we do best. We will teach. We will teach our children a common vocabulary that allows them talk about issues of race. We will teach our children to be successful in a world that is multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual. We will learn how to have the difficult conversation about race.
Most importantly, we will maintain our commitment to make North Cross School a safe, nurturing, and inclusive environment for all students. The death of George Floyd, tragic as it was, demands no less of us.
Christian J. Proctor, PhD
Dr. Proctor is the ninth Head of School at North Cross and has served as such since 2011. He has more than 30 years of experience in education. He has served as headmaster at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, South Carolina, St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Metairie, Louisiana, Grace Episcopal School in Monroe, Louisiana, and as Interim Headmaster at Wesley Academy in Houston, Texas. In each location, Dr. Proctor’s tenure was marked by creativity, innovation, and school growth.