By Eboo Patel
In his latest book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy, Eboo Patel dedicates a full chapter to advise his sons on refounding the US as a just and inclusive democracy in their time. We’re sharing a selection of it in honor of Father’s Day.
Do you remember the first demonstration that your mother and I took you to? It was the fifty-year commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march through the South Side neighborhood of Marquette Park. Do you know what King endured that day? Five thousand people lined the streets of the neighborhood to scream racist slurs and throw bottles and bricks at King and a few hundred peaceful marchers. A brick hit King in the head, he went down on a knee, wiped the blood away, stood up, and kept marching. At one point, King saw a pack of white teenagers screaming racist slurs on the sidewalk. Somehow, he escaped his security detail, approached the kids, and said something to the effect of, “You guys are so smart and good looking, why would you want to act this way?”
Today, Marquette Park is one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods on the South Side. The demonstration we went to was organized by an organization called the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. As part of the commemoration, they erected the first permanent memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. in the city of Chicago. The memorial has quotes from Muslim and Jewish leaders who were looking to build the same kind of world that King was trying to build, a world where everybody thrives.
Parenting is in no small part the process of praying that your kids get right the things you got wrong. So allow me this hope. You will acquire the radar screen to detect racism, the language to deconstruct it, the structural soundness to not be deformed by it, and the leadership skills to transform it without a detour down the road of rage. Instead, you will maintain the hopefulness of King, of Lincoln, of John Lewis, of Jane Addams. Because here’s the thing: if it was not for them, our family would not be in this country. It is precisely because they imagined a nation based on shared ideals rather than shared ethnicity, a nation where avowed racists could change, that new laws were passed in the 1960s that allowed your grandparents to immigrate to this nation. Those people paved a path for you: it is your job to pave a path for others. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, We do not inherit traditions; we work to make ourselves worthy of them. You are Americans. The tradition of America is a glorious tradition, built by sweat and blood, and art and poetry. What will you do to make yourself worthy of it?
We might have been navigating people’s unconscious racial bias, perhaps even a deeply rooted form of white supremacy, when we were selling our house, but just remember, we had a house to sell, and we were moving into one we liked better. Both of you have known nothing but nice houses, safe neighborhoods, and excellent schools. You think this is the way the whole world is. Khalil, I remember the time you saw a story on the local news about a shooting in Chicago. You turned to me and said, “Wait, Dad, people in Chicago get shot?”
You and your friends talk about which college you want to go to, not whether you think you might go to college. That’s in part because virtually every one of their parents went to college, and just about all of them have plum positions in the knowledge economy. The data shows that three-quarters of their children—your friends—will earn college degrees by the time they are twenty-four. That’s not because they are more brilliant than the rest of the country and the world, that’s because they—and you—are more privileged.
I say all this because one of the things that strikes me about the fancy colleges you both want to attend is that they are the ones that are most likely to teach you a language of criticism and deconstruction, a language that encourages you to think of yourself as oppressed.
I think this is a useful pair of glasses to put on from time to time, but it’s a terrible idea to do permanent surgery on your eyes such that you only see the bad things that happen to you.
First of all, you are not oppressed. To use that word in reference to yourself is to announce to the world that you utterly lack perspective. Most of the world would trade places with you in an instant.
I learned this, as I learned many things, by the way of maximum embarrassment.
I remember being in a taxi in Mumbai with my own father. I was on a break from graduate school at Oxford and reflecting out loud on how challenging I found the environment. “It’s a place that built the empire, and now it has to deal with the people it colonized returning as its students. It doesn’t know how to treat us as equals, and so it oppresses us through other means.”
I was proud of my postcolonial analysis, especially given the backdrop of India. Not only was I challenging the empire; I was also expressing solidarity with my countrymen. My dad did not see it the same way. He pointed to a child on the street, probably eight years old, missing his right arm and with a horrible scar on the side of his face, his left hand extended toward our window, begging for money. I had not noticed him. There were so many others who looked similar that I had learned quickly to ignore them. “If you are oppressed, what word do you have for him?” my dad asked. “For all of them,” he said with emphasis, pointing to the many other leprous beggars on the streets.
I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t.
A few years later, I had something of a similar experience. I was complaining to an Islamic scholar from the Middle East about the policies of the Bush administration. Something about the way I was talking conveyed a kind of self-pity that apparently put him off.
“Where will you sleep tonight?” he asked me.
“In my bed,” I said, a little confused. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I just want you to realize that if you were in my country and you said such things about its leader, you would not be sleeping in your bed tonight, you would be in jail being tortured. You Americans should have greater appreciation for your freedoms and spend more time doing things for other people rather than feeling sorry for yourselves.”
The term “oppression,” if it means anything at all, cannot include both upper-middle-class brown kids in urban America and people who sleep on the filthy streets or in the torture chambers of developing world nations.
Here is the bottom line: I do not want you to feel like the only story to tell about your brown skin, ethnic heritage, and Muslim faith is a story of marginalization, as if being Indian or Muslim are categories absent of content of their own, defined only by experiences of racism. I want you to realize how much progress has been made and to be grateful to all the people who did the work and made the sacrifices from which you benefit. The “we are even worse off now than we were during segregation or colonialism” narrative is not only a lie; it also dishonors the genuine heroes who fought, bled, and in some cases died to build a nation where most of us live better lives.
I want you to have the radar screen to recognize racism and the tools to call it out and to also realize that such accusations are serious and ought not be made lightly. I don’t want you to go hunting for examples of racism and white supremacy. There is enough of it in the world already. Generally, I’d like you to give people the benefit of the doubt. For example, most ignorant questions about Islam are not examples of racism, but rather illustrations of being uninformed, and therefore are opportunities to do some good by providing a little education. By the way, you will undoubtedly say some uninformed things about other people’s identities, and you will appreciate when they gently correct your misunderstanding rather than zap you with an accusation.
I have some counterintuitive advice for you: embrace your privilege. Not in a way that makes you self-satisfied (you did nothing to earn your privileges) or complacent, but in a “I have great potential, opportunity, and responsibility” manner. Whatever might be wrong with the world or challenging about your own life, I want your first instinct to be, “What can I do to be a better person, change agent, and leader?” That doesn’t mean that other people don’t need to change, it only means that if you are going to be the person leading that change, you need to be a better version of yourself. The first step toward that is understanding yourself as an agent and not a victim.
One of my favorite mantras is from the field of community organizing: don’t do for people what they can do for themselves. The message is clear—people are infinitely powerful, and your job as a community organizer is to help them see their own power and then put that power into the world. Zayd and Khalil, I want you to apply that lesson to yourselves.
This is a lesson you know really well because you both play sports. Every coach you’ve had has emphasized at every practice and in every game: focus on being a better person, player, and teammate. Don’t make excuses.
Zayd, I remember coming early to pick you up from basketball practice one day and getting to watch the scrimmage. The point guard got his shot blocked and yelled, out of frustration, “I’m too short.”
He’s right, I thought. He is short—a serious disadvantage in basketball.
That’s not the way your coach saw it. He was furious. He yelled, “We never talk about the things we can’t do or the things we don’t have. We never make excuses. We work hard, we improve, we commit to excellence.” Your coach at the time, Renell, was a walking example of this. He was short himself, well under six feet. And yet he’d made it to the NBA D-League. How? He did what he could with what he had. Those are the highest values of athletics and of leadership in general.
Remember when our flight to Arizona was delayed by ten hours and we were stuck at Midway Airport all day? The only consolation was that the people sitting next to us were players from an AAU school basketball team. I loved how you peppered those young men with questions about how they got to be elite athletes.
I’ll never forget that conversation. The point guard on the team motioned over to a middle-aged Black man reading a newspaper. “That’s our coach,” the player said. “He makes us do drills over and over. He has us run every time we make a mistake. He doesn’t give out many compliments. He always says that he makes practices harder than games so that by the time we get there, we find the game easy.”
The player looked directly at you two and said, “You prepare like that, and you become mentally tough enough to deal with anything.”
You see similar themes in just about every sports-related commercial on television. Think about that Nike ad that features all those people with no hands and legs, kids from villages in developing nations and urban ghettoes—all of whom make it to the top of their field. Unfairness is at the center of the narrative. But the message is not to point out all the ways that the system (or in this case, the sport) is structured against you. The message is to adopt an attitude that overcomes disadvantage through your own excellence.
Here’s my favorite part of that commercial: it’s narrated by Colin Kaepernick. Kaep, as you both well know, started the protest movement of kneeling during the national anthem that has now become a mainstay of athletic events. He narrated that Nike ad to send a message that unfair and oppressive systems are not going to prevent him from doing the work to achieve excellence. He’s still ready to play at the highest level.
That’s the great wisdom of sports.
The game is hard, your opponent is strong, you are disadvantaged—all of this is assumed. Away games are meant to be hostile territory, not safe spaces. Prepare for it. The other team will try to trigger you. Be mentally strong. Microaggressions? Laugh at them. And learn to channel your own macro-aggression into excellence. Work harder. Dig deeper.
Just about every coach I’ve ever been around has preached some version of this message. It should not go unnoticed that people from marginalized populations thrive in these settings. Both the NBA and the NFL are approximately three-quarters African American. Major League Baseball is nearly 50 percent Latino. In the process of thriving, those Black and brown athletes changed entire sports. Basketball is a radically different and far more exciting game, from the style of play to fashion styles, now that Black players dominate rather than white players.
This is not just a recipe for excellence in athletics. I remember sitting next to the great Black artist Kerry James Marshall at a dinner once. He spoke to me about the tragedy of so many vacant lots on the South and West Sides of Chicago. What do those vacant lots tell young Black people about their worth in the world?
In so many ways, he told me, his art is a response to those vacant lots. Its goal is to show Black people as complex, beautiful, satisfied, complete. He paints Black hairdressers, Black magicians, Black lovers, Black siblings, Black painters, Black people vacationing on a boat. He is creating an entire Black universe standing on a foundation of its own strength. The color black in his paintings always stands on its own; it is never mixed in with any other colors.
He makes it clear in a video called Mastry that he is not angry at the old masters for their white ways. That Rubens was painting fleshy naked blond women was his world and his era. Marshall’s view is some version of “Fine, whatever, that was how you saw things. It’s not worth my precious time to critique it.”
Kerry James Marshall wants to spend all of his time on a different goal: to give Black Americans what they deserved by painting their world at the very highest level of excellence. And if he found himself unable to do that, Marshall was not going to blame Rubens or any other dead white man for that. “That’s my problem to solve,” he said. And if he could not find a solution, then what he had on his hands was a failure of imagination, not a reason to blame someone else.
Kerry James Marshall was not going to let the limits of others limit him. Neither was Lori Lightfoot, the gay Black woman who grew up working class in a small town and rose to become mayor of Chicago. On the night of her election, Lightfoot was interviewed by Lisa Desjardins of PBS and asked what her mother said when she heard the good news. Here’s how the mayor-elect responded: “My mother basically said, ‘This is how I raised you. To be strong and fearless. To meet challenges, to take advantage of opportunities, to prepare yourself to be in charge.’”
Imagine being a Black girl born when much of the United States was still segregated. Your parents work multiple jobs to make ends meet. You are slowly recognizing that your sexuality doesn’t fit the norm, but it’s not something you can share because of the homophobia deeply woven into the culture, especially in your small Midwestern town.
And your mom tells you to be strong and fearless, to meet challenges, take advantage of opportunities, and prepare yourself to lead.
You are fully aware of the race, gender, class, and sexuality advantages that other people have. You notice it in college at the University of Michigan, in law school at the University of Chicago, as a young lawyer in the district attorney’s office, as a more experienced attorney at the corporate law firm Mayer Brown, in your various appointed governmental positions. There are a whole bunch of people who, on account of their skin color, gender, family background, and so on seem as if they dropped from the sky onto third base, and when friends rig the system so they can saunter home, they act impressed with themselves.
And here you are, smarter and more focused than all of them, just meeting challenges, taking advantage of opportunities, and preparing to be in charge.
And now you are the mayor of Chicago. And you know who is not surprised? Your mother.
Speaking of mothers, yours is remarkable. Easily the best thing that happened in my life was meeting and marrying her. If you want to talk about privileges, having a mom like yours tops the list.
Right now, you mostly see her as someone who drives you places, helps you with homework, and says yes to about half your requests for sleepovers. But you should know a few other things too. Your mom was a civil rights attorney who handled mostly police misconduct cases. She argued fourteen cases in federal court and was the lead attorney on two appellate arguments.
Police misconduct is a euphemism for when cops brutalize people. It’s been all in the news these last few years. Names like McDonald, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, George Floyd, and way too many others have become part of the national discourse. Well, your mom cared about these issues long before they led the evening news. That’s because your mom cares about people—all people. That includes the people who hurt the clients she was defending. Yes, I mean the police.
When your mom and I were dating and I was learning more about her work trying police misconduct cases (and falling in love with her at the same time), I made a disparaging remark about cops.
She looked at me as if I’d said something profane. “I do what I do to return dignity to people who have been violated and to help police officers live up to the code they swear to: to serve and protect. Police officers have important and difficult jobs. If I do my work right, they do their jobs better, and that is good for everyone.”
Here’s the thing, Zayd and Khalil: your mom doesn’t think in us/ them terms, even when so many people around her do. She’s on everybody’s side, all the time.
I want you to be like that, looking to build things, not just tearing them down. I would be proud of you if after the killing of Michael Brown, you were in Ferguson protesting a racist criminal justice system. But I’d be prouder still if you were the ones taking responsibility to improve the police department in Ferguson. Doesn’t every community deserve a decent police department—or even better, alternatives that secure public safety and community thriving without any threat of violence? Isn’t that what the protestors are calling for? Somebody’s got to take charge of implementing the solution. Why not you?
About the Author
Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith America, the largest organization engaging religious diversity in the United States. He is the author of five books on diversity and democracy, including We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy, a regular contributor to the conversation on the role of religion in public life, and a frequent keynote speaker. He lives in Chicago with his wife Shehnaz and two sons. Follow him on Twitter (@EbooPatel).