The NULITES student enrichment program
The NULITES student enrichment program

This will sound odd to some, but Jamal and Ebony really love America.

This is a revelation to many Americans because the concept of patriotism is not readily associated with inner city black children. Modern-day images of patriotism that usually come to mind reflect the iconic look of Uncle Sam — suburban and rural whites clad in American flags. This traditional conception, coupled with prevalent depictions of inner city black youth as self-interested malcontents, complicates any attempt at putting a young, indigent, black face on patriotism.

But as many Americans know, though there are numerous challenges that face inner city youth, there is also a patriotism often overlooked in favor of a fixation on the tragedies.

Proof of urban patriotism

I was reminded of this a few months ago after hosting a cybersecurity discussion at the White House for a group of students in the Pennsylvania Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement (MESA) program at Temple University. This program is one of many around the nation aimed at attracting and equipping minority and disadvantaged students for technical careers. Students on Temple MESA’s mobile applications team recently won seed money to fund their innovative tutoring application. The program is full of brilliant students who just happen to live in and around inner city Philadelphia.

During our discussion at the White House, and in a weekend seminar at Temple University on cybersecurity forensics several weeks later, I was not at all surprised by their intellectual curiosity, incredible critical thinking skills, and awareness of the international issues regarding cybersecurity.

But I will admit to being a bit stunned by how adamant the students were that America defends itself from other nations hacking into our networks. These kids didn’t need an American flag lapel pin to show how much they care about the country; their patriotism was evident in every question, every idea, and in the desire to defend the nation.

Changing negative narratives

The narrative around inner city black children is littered with high school drop-out rates, teen pregnancies, violent crime, drug use, juvenile delinquency, and poor health.

These issues receive much more media coverage than the success stories, and as a result, shape the nation’s perception of the youth into a tragic, stereotyped generalization.

Moreover, the government’s response to events like Hurricane Katrina and other policy decisions that disproportionately affect the black poor –- like changes to federal education loan requirements and government assistance outlays –- only contribute to a public discourse of black dissatisfaction with America.

This can lead to a perception that blacks aren’t patriotic.

The question of black patriotism

The question of black patriotism is especially timely as the nation considers military action in Syria. A new poll shows that 60 percent of African-Americans do not support President Obama’s desire to launch strikes. Likewise, the majority of blacks, to include then-Senator Obama, did not support the war in Iraq. This would seem to further the idea of unpatriotic blacks being the norm.

But a look at American history should readily dispel any idea that blacks are less patriotic than other groups. Black soldiers have fought and died in every war the country has undertaken, even when they were enslaved by the very country for which they fought. In today’s military, blacks are overrepresented.

African-Americans make up 12.6 percent of the population, but nearly 16 percent of the active duty military, as of 2010.

Redefining patriotism today

Besides, support for war is not the only expression of patriotism. Scholars have contended that patriotism is being emotionally attached to the country, and emotionally affected by its actions.

Further, research shows that patriotism closely corresponds to a more cooperative or peaceful approach to the world. In this light, the majority black stance on Iraq and Syria is might be a reflection of deep patriotism.

Yet, it also means that our emotional attachment requires fierce defense when legitimately threatened, as in the aftermath of 9/11.

This inclination to fight off attackers of our country is the patriotic urge the Temple MESA kids drew from during the discussion.

Jamal and Ebony: New faces of patriotism

Days before our meeting, the news was filled with stories of foreign countries attacking our banking websites and snooping around American businesses to steal information. Not only were these students aware of these occurrences, but they were ready to help, to fight for America — virtually.

The spirit that propelled enslaved and disenfranchised blacks to fight on behalf of the country, to vehemently refuse 19th century ideas of deportation to Africa, and to demand the rights and opportunities that the America ideal promises, is the same patriotic spirit that can be found in our inner city students, especially when they are given a chance to showcase their talents.

As the nation’s demographics turn it into an America with a majority of its population being people of color, the old depictions of patriotism as the sovereign province of whites must change. The Jamals and Ebonys, too, are the face of patriotism.

Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.