(The Root) — A lot has changed since 1903, when W.E.B. Du Bois described black Americans as possessing what he called a "double consciousness," caught between a self-conception as Americans and as people of African descent. As he put it in The Souls of Black Folk: "The Negro ever feels his two-ness-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings … two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
Fast-forward 110 years later. We have a black president and a disappearing white majority on the one hand, and persistent, systemic racial inequality and all-too-common overt bigotry on the other. Meanwhile, in a major blow to civil rights, the Supreme Court just gutted the legislation that was designed to protect African Americans' right to vote. And the entire country is watching to see how our criminal-justice system will impart justice for Trayvon Martin, who many believe lost his life simply because he was black.
In an interview series commemorating Independence Day, The Root checked in with a diverse group of leaders and thinkers to get their take on what's changed and what hasn't — and what it means to be black, American and patriotic in 2013.
For the second interview in the series, we spoke to Maj. Gen. Marcia Anderson, deputy chief of the Army Reserve, who says more Americans should view public service as a privilege.
The Root: What, if anything, makes African Americans' relationship with patriotism unique?
Marcia Anderson: African Americans have been making significant contributions to America's arts, sciences, literature, industry, academia and other aspects of its culture for hundreds of years. Many say that serving in the U.S. military reveals a great deal about one's patriotism. Throughout our country's history, black men and women have fought to form and preserve our Union, and to promote the ideals of freedom, justice and security, even when their own nation denied them these privileges.
Although only [13 percent] of the population of the United States, African Americans make up more than 20 percent of our active-duty force and 22 percent of the Army Reserve. Our Army has come a long way in the struggle for equality, and we owe our successes today to the black service members of the past who continued to step forward to serve their country, even when their country failed to uphold their rights.
Like the flag on the shoulder of every soldier, today's Army brings together the strengths and experience of soldiers of many races to create an enduring testament to hope, valor, service and liberty. African Americans have earned the right to be considered "patriots."
More and more, organizations are realizing that in order to be successful and recruit and retain the best employees, they must value the diversity of their employees and the clients they serve. The Army Reserve's approximately 200,000 citizen-soldiers are a highly skilled, patriotic cross-section of our nation's multicultural melting pot.
TR: Is there anything in American law, policy or culture today that would be a justifiable basis for African Americans to feel unpatriotic?
MA: I do not feel qualified to address law and policy but do have some personal thoughts on the aspect of culture. I personally think we have countless reasons why African Americans actually have many reasons to feel patriotic. The United States offers opportunities and an environment that encourages and rewards our citizens who strive for an education, work hard and contribute to our communities. The qualities I have described are an integral part of the fabric of African-American families and were instilled in me by my parents and grandparents.
Our country, and our military, have led the way in integration; otherwise, we would not have had leaders like Secretary Colin Powell, who rose to the most senior position in our Armed Forces. Insofar as my own experience is concerned, the majority of my military mentors have not been African American or female. They ultimately cared more about my character and abilities than my race or gender.
TR: What's missing from the conversation about African Americans and patriotism?
MA: We need to focus the conversation on how much value we bring to the table in terms of our cultural and life experiences. No organization or country can grow or prosper if it lacks a diverse group of individuals who work together to contribute to overall success. History teaches us that civilizations, governments and cultures that are inflexible, intolerant or fail to adapt and change are not just stagnant; sometimes they even cease to exist.
TR: What's the best thing about being American?
MA: There are actually several things: the freedom we enjoy to travel, to live where we wish, to worship without fear, to pursue our dreams whatever they might be; and, if we are unhappy with some aspect of our government, the ability to express our opinion by exercising our right to vote.
TR: If you could change just one thing about America, what would it be?
MA: I wish more people would view public service as the honor and privilege that I do. Those who serve as civil servants or members of our military are not doing it to get rich or because we could not do something else. Those I know do it because they care, period.
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.