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

Political scientist Henry Brady explores how trust has broken down in the U.S. and what we can do about it.
"Intel, which ranked second on the REDI Index last year, overtook Google, last year's top company, by 10 points in 2021. Intel’s public conference on religious inclusion earned it the extra boost."
"The letter says its signers feel compelled to condemn such expressions, "just as many Muslim leaders have felt the need to denounce distorted, violent versions of their faith" in previous years."
During the coronavirus pandemic, Moncayo has led the food distribution program through Mosaic West Queens Church in the Sunnyside neighborhood.
Raja writes about the usefulness or appropriateness of the term "BIPOC" - Black, Indigenous, People of Color- in discourse about race and justice, and how it relates to and reflects the politics of race and racism in the United States.
The river has been important since the dawn of civilization and has served as a commercial hub and lifeline for countless peoples over many millennia. Yet there has always seemed to be a justice that was out of reach for some.
"Many synagogues are leaning into the Purim tradition of giving gifts to friends and the poor— a custom known as “mishloach manot.”
"We know through surveys that people are more likely to like Muslims if they know one personally. But because only about 1% of Americans practice the Islamic faith, many people just don’t come into contact with any Muslims."
Purim tells the tale of Esther, an orphaned girl-turned-queen, how she married King Achashverosh, then saved the entire Jewish community in the ancient Persian city of Shushan, through her bravery and wit.
Higher education remains highly unequal and racial divides persist. How can these realities be explained in a context defined by wokeness?
There are so many forces that pull people apart from one another. Institutions and systems and ways of thinking that want us to feel separated, broken, helpless, and quick to capitalize on moments of weakness. The very thing that brings out...
Others noted Rihanna chose to display Ganesh on Feb. 15, the day Hindus celebrate as Ganesh's birthday, or Ganesh Jayanti. The god of beginnings, Ganesh is honored before starting a business or major project.
Until this year, most schools, states and national high school athletic associations had typically forbidden religious headwear, citing safety concerns, unless a student or coach had applied for a waiver. No waiver, no play.
Do a quick Google or YouTube search for tarot, and you’ll find the two main things people tend to inquire about are love and money. Underlying these inquiries is a belief that a tarot reading can tell the future, which begs the question of whether...
The results are based on responses from some 1,800 Black American adults, including more than 800 who attend a Black church. The California research firm conducted the survey in the spring of 2020.
Asian Americans are suffering under the weight of these mounting incidents. Many, including those in our own circles, have expressed concern about leaving their homes to perform everyday tasks.
"Black residents make up a little under half of Washington’s population, but constitute nearly three-fourths of the city's COVID-19 deaths."
Can interfaith leadership foster greater equity for the health of communities of color? Four leaders in healthcare discuss racial health disparities in our nation and how interfaith leadership can be implemented in order to solve them.
“It's an invitation to be subversive by focusing on ourselves."
Across the state, nearly every major health care system has partnered with Black and Hispanic houses of worship to expand vaccine access, setting up mobile clinics in their parking lots and fellowship halls.
Gandhi organized a nonviolent protest on behalf of the farmers. That was when the word satyagraha was used for the first time in the context of a political protest.

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.