Burden of Proof

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While on a seven-country tour this week, dignified and presidential images of Barack Obama have replaced last week's cartoon image of him as a fist-bumping, flag-burning terrorist.

This isn't the first time that questions of Obama's patriotism and loyalty have been raised, then quieted, by an inspiring speech or image. Throughout this presidential election, Obama has had to go above and beyond to prove that he, too, loves this country. It's insulting and disheartening.

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As the daughter of a retired African-American foreign service officer, I've lived patriotism, and it's time we settle one issue regarding race in America: Enough already with questioning the patriotism of African Americans just because we have a hyphenated identity. We can be black and red, white and blue.

From government to military service, we have sacrificed for this country. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., I spent my childhood moving for my mother's job in the consular division of the State Department. Every few years my mother would get a new posting at a U.S. embassy overseas. I would pack up and move to new cities like Monrovia, Liberia and La Paz, Bolivia, leaving behind friendships with girls with names like Ashley, Leslie and Melissa. Rather than feel like I had made a sacrifice, I felt that it was our duty to serve our country and, therefore, an honor to go where we were needed.

When I was nine and in pigtails, living in Seoul, South Korea, I watched Armed Forces TV in our house on the embassy compound, and I proudly sang along to commercials, belting out the lyrics to one song, "I'm out here for my hometown 'cause freedom isn't free."

I'm 28 years old now, and I could never have dreamed that nearly two decades after I sang along to that commercial, African-American patriotism would be so continuously questioned in the midst of this historical presidential election.

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According to Khalilah Brown-Dean, an assistant professor of African-American studies at Yale University, Obama's presidential bid has "forced a conversation on what it means to be patriotic and spurred a question of whether people can be critical of their country and still be patriotic."

To me, it's a dull debate. Honestly, let's get past it, already. The unwritten rule that says patriotism means ignoring negative aspects of America's history is not only unfair, it's flawed. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging America's flaws. The motivation to help America overcome its flaws is a form of patriotism because it means working toward a fairer, more inclusive nation.

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I've felt this way ever since my sophomore year at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Alaska, when I heard criticism of the patriotism of African Americans, who like me, used a hyphenated identity. "You're American first," a white classmate said, in a thinly veiled rebuke to me and one other African American in the class.

Obama's political rise and the prospect of an Obama presidency have inspired a sense of optimism and pride for many in the African-American community. Just to be clear, however, it hasn't inspired patriotism, as some have suggested. We already had it.

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Leutisha Stills, an African-American political activist in Washington, D.C., who has had three generations of her family serve in the military during times of war, told me "we've always been patriotic." And I agree.

Curtis Pree, a political commentator in D.C., whose family members also served in the military told me: "The only thing African Americans know is that they are American. By our nature, African Americans can't help but be patriotic." This is true for me, and it's certainly true for others. But I also believe we are patriotic out of a deep sense of pride in being American.

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While African Americans represent about one of 10 Americans, they account for almost one of four enlisted personnel, and they make up about one of three of the military's ground forces, according to Black Military World, a Washington, D.C., area publication that brings some attention to the sacrifice of African Americans in military service.

According to the U.S. Census, more blacks are military veterans than any other minority. And according to the Office of Personnel Management's annual report to Congress in 2007, African Americans represented about 18 percent of the permanent federal workforce.

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We are a population worth courting. According to the U.S. Census, African Americans had a higher level of voter registration and participation than other minority groups in the November 2004 election.

The stereotype of the patriotism gap may be rooted in the belief that African Americans can't look beyond institutionalized racism in America's history. That is simply not true. According to a recent survey by Radio One, 54 percent of African Americans said they are optimistic about the future for blacks.

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That includes me.

But when I see the patriotism of African Americans questioned, I feel hurt for people like my mother, Tina Wilson, who've dedicated their career to serving America. I am also saddened for African-American children who, like my younger self, put their hand on their heart and pledged allegiance to this country. They, like me, have made a serious commitment of allegiance to this country. Instead of calling into question the patriotism of African Americans, let's send them an important message: We believe in them.

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Naira Ruiz is a Georgetown University journalism graduate student and freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area.

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