George Floyd & the Patels: A Story in Generations

My father called when I was in the car with my two boys, ages ten and thirteen. “I watched the video,” he said over the speaker phone. His voice was tight and small, the kind that lives at the intersection of barely controlled rage and overwhelming sadness. “The cop had his knee on the man’s neck for nine minutes.”

And then his voice got one notch tighter and one click smaller. “At the end he was calling out for his mother, his dead mother.” 

My father is an Indian immigrant who came to the United States to get his MBA from Notre Dame in the mid-1970s. He found a job in corporate advertising, settled his family in DuPage County, became a vocal Reagan supporter in the 1980s and prepared to do the whole upwardly-mobile South Asian immigrant thing. He loved Morning-in-America, and convinced himself that if you just pretended the darkness of racism didn’t exist, either in the nation or in your own life, well, then, you might have the pleasure of being blinded by the sunlight.

Things changed for him when he watched George H.W. Bush, while on a golf course, casually announce that he wasn’t going to support the Iraqi Kurds and Shias after all, a decision which led to mass state slaughter in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Things really changed when the United States stood back and watched Slobodan Milosevic slaughter tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims a couple years later. “The U.S. military would be intervening if these people were white and Christian,” he would say through clenched teeth while watching U.S. officials equivocate on This Week.

Really, it was just a shift in perspective, not a change in reality. I mean, it’s not like racism didn’t exist before that. It’s just that the way it manifested, my dad decided that he could live with. As a highly educated Indian immigrant in a well-to-do Chicago suburb, he would occasionally get heckled by white teenage punks, but that was about the extent of the direct racism.  

The truth is my dad stayed as far away from those issues as he could when I was growing up. He would talk with admiration about the black people who had climbed to the upper rungs of the corporate advertising ladder. He knew how much smarter they had to be and how much harder they had to work to achieve their place. But his friends were always the white guys. I don’t think that was an accident. My dad wanted to fit in. He knew that meant cozying up to whiteness, and hoping some of it might rub off.   

Through my adolescence, until I got to college, I had zero context for discussions about race, either the relatively mild forms that I experienced, or the acute and systemic forms that suffocated the lives of others.  

I saw Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing when I was sixteen years old, around the same time that the Rodney King beating was being looped on the evening news. The murder of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police was one of the indelible moments of that film, and it bore more than a family resemblance to the Rodney King footage. And yet, from my perch in Glen Ellyn, both of those worlds felt very far away – closer to Mars than any America I knew. I had no context for any of it. We didn’t talk about those issues at home, and we didn’t talk about those issues at school.      

My kids are growing up in a very different world. Hip hop does not need the vehicle of an Aerosmith song to arrive on commercial radio. Actually, my boys don’t even know what commercial radio is. From the age of seven, they’ve been finding and downloading underground hip hop artists online.

My thirteen year old read Bryan Stevenson and The Hate You Give the first time because he was assigned them in school, and the second time because they felt important. Both of my boys knew about the George Floyd video before I did. Instagram and TikTok move faster than the New York Times.

My kids are growing up in a white world but a black culture. The artists and athletes they admire are all black. The activist issues they resonate with are colored entirely by race. Their response to the shock and hurt in my dad’s voice was swift and categoric:

“Dada, what are you surprised about?” my thirteen year old said. 

Before my dad could stammer out a response, my ten year old said, in a calm, straightforward voice: “Dada, you should listen to the Childish Gambino song ‘This is America’ and wake up.”  

If you talked to my kids about Morning in America, they would just laugh at you.

Me, I’ve long been an ‘in the middle’ kind of person. I like to point out both sides of the story, to see the grey areas. I think aggressive reforms are often warranted, but I believe in institutions. And I think order, when it is legitimate and serves people, is a good thing. If the me from 2020 was to be transported back to the Morning-in-America era, I’d be saying that I see the sun but maybe we should work on removing the clouds before declaring victory.

But on the matter at hand, the murder at hand, the one that changed my father’s voice, perhaps permanently, the one that my kids view as simply further confirmation of the fundamental brutality and injustice of the system, there is no grey. There are no two sides. It’s not just a couple of clouds shrouding the sun. And the fire is not in the sky, it’s in the land. Sometimes containing that fire is the wrong move. Sometimes you need to let it burn through you, the sadness, the anger, the ‘Is this really still happening …STILL … still ?” 

Even a week later, after the protests and the wall-to-wall media coverage, it seems impossible to believe: the cruelty of a man, a uniformed officer, paid by taxpayers, carrying the legitimacy of a supposedly democratic state, squeezing the life out of another man who is whimpering for his mother over the course of nine minutes. If it was in a movie script, I would consider it too far-fetched. But as my kids will remind you, this is not a movie. This is America.  

There is someone else in our family who doesn’t need reminding, someone with more steel in her spine than virtually anyone I know. Hint: her last name is not Patel, it’s Mansuri. She kept it when she married me.

For fifteen years my wife was a civil rights attorney who dealt mostly with police misconduct cases. “Oh, what does that mean?” some of the neighborhood swells ask brightly. “It means calling police officers to account when they dehumanize people,” my wife responds, just as brightly.

She had hundreds of cases, from unwarranted shootings to unwarranted broken arms. She got dozens of clients decent settlements, took fourteen to federal court and won her fair share, had two arguments before the Court of Appeals of the 7th Circuit.

But the thing that always struck me was when she decided to take a case that she knew there wasn’t a prayer of winning or settling. She’d sign the client up, dutifully take the depositions, go to court and argue motions before the judge. Every move was a signal that she believed her client and knew that his being heard was its own victory, not one that registered on the legal scale or the financial scale but rather on the dignity scale. If it meant sacrificing a few dollars of attorneys fees, so be it. There are more important awards than winning “Businesswoman of the Year”. There is a cosmic scorecard on which our deeds and our intentions are written. And right now, marks are being made.   

I want to end with an image: the picture of Woody Guthrie with his guitar, the words “This machine kills fascists” scrawled on the body. 

That image matters now for so many reasons. First, it does not mince words about the fact of evil and the need to rid the world of it. Second, the machine is a guitar, not a gun. That bears repeating. Woody Guthrie puts his faith in an instrument of peace and beauty to do battle with evil. Also, it’s his instrument. It represents his particular gift, his distinctive contribution: to write songs and play music. 

And what do so many of us do? We teach. We pastor. We preach. We listen. We counsel. We direct organizations and run programs. We write books and essays and poems. Those are the instruments we play. That is our distinctive contribution to the world.

Let us sing together now, and play our beautiful music, and create a spirit of hopefulness that vanquishes evil and builds a new civilization.  

Read IFYC's Commitment to Interfaith Leadership & Racial Equity.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

The expansion is fueled by concerns over political polarization on college campuses, an infusion of funds from foundations interested in bridge-building, and a merger with IFYC, which has a track record facilitating interfaith engagement.
Ancient rabbis imagined the great chain of tradition, that went from generation to generation, as a ball that is tossed, playfully, from teacher to student. Is there a "Lasso Torah" inside a television show about a fish-out-of-water Midwestern football coach?
Studies show houses of worship have provided solace during the pandemic, but companies across the U.S. are struggling to respond to requests for religious exemptions to vaccine mandates.
Catholics leaders have urged vaccination to "protect the most vulnerable," and studies show this outreach is helping improve vaccination rates among Latino Catholics.
Across the country, people from all political divides, faiths and walks of life are coming together to help resettle Afghan refugees arriving at the borders.
The first episode of “Home Sweet Home,” which DuVernay said prioritizes curiosity over conflict, features the Wixx family — a “super queer” Black couple with three children.
Each week, we share our top 10 religion stories from journals, news sites, podcasts and magazines.
Dr. Abel Gomez: "If we’re talking about interfaith work and we want to expand the ability of communities to practice their religious ceremonies, I ask my students: if we think about the experience of Native people under the occupation of the United States, do they actually have religious freedom?"
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, based at the historically Black university founded by the abolitionist American Missionary Association and later tied to the United Church of Christ, started traveling 150 years ago on Oct. 6, 1871.
The last several months have been catastrophic for Haiti. The Aug. 14 earthquake left more than 2,200 people dead, followed by Tropical Depression Grace two days later. The country’s political sector has been in disarray & over 22,000 people have officially died during the pandemic.
Apache Stronghold will take part in a day of prayer Saturday (Oct. 9) at Oak Flat before meeting with leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation, who will offer a blessing and prayer for their travels.
It’s not just interactions with friends and families that are getting cut. Routine yet beneficial interactions with people at fitness and child care centers and volunteer organizations are also being eliminated.
Ismaili Jamatkhanas are designed to be both places of worship and community engagement, so when the chance to conduct a vaccine drive became a possibility, volunteers mobilized quickly.
Amid personal and professional crises, the author writes that she finds her Christian faith "one of the most fruitful sources of hope, even in the darkest hours."
Facebook has been a catalyst for religious communities that aren’t defined geographically. For religious leaders who connect with their flocks on the internet, the outage was a reminder to own their information.
The pedestal that propped up the statue of Junipero Serra looks bare at first glance, but once a smartphone camera is aimed toward it, an animated monument honoring the Tongva, the Indigenous people of Los Angeles, comes alive.
A Lutheran church in Wisconsin recently hosted an interfaith dialogue between a pagan and Lutheran pastor. They will continue the conversation this month in an event hosted by the Parliament of the Worlds Religions in Chicago.
The articles and videos are by and about inspiring Latinx/a/o interfaith leaders from diverse religious communities.
Our top 10 religion stories of the week show religious pluralism as an opportunity, not a cause for despair. They're also great reads.
The law, possibly the first of its kind in the nation, is part of a larger effort by women athletes to have more say about what they wear while competing.
"We are American faith leaders from six different faith traditions, including yours," said a letter to President Joe Biden. "We see our nation continuing to spectacularly fail in welcoming the stranger."

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.