Reflections on Amazing Grace

Is poverty in the United States a race issue?

I jog in the morning past Bolton Hill towards Druid Lake and I pass by two apartment buildings inhabited by mostly black residents. The apartments’ balconies don’t look pretty as some of the residents seem to use them as storage space. The apartments must be cramped. I smile and say “Good morning,” as I pass by.

Residents there generally don’t seem happy. They sometimes respond to me, but their “Good mornings” are curt. Others don’t respond at all and just look far away or are deep in thought. One time, on my way back, I saw a white woman walking outside one apartment building. She didn’t look well. She was walking slowly. She was a big woman but her cheeks were sunken. She must have missing teeth; must have been only in her forties.

Whenever I see poor, miserable-looking white women, I am always surprised because it is unusual to see white people in such a state. My roommate who grew up in Mississippi told me that the first time she saw a black man in an expensive car, she felt surprised.

Is poverty, then, a race issue?

In 1991, in a moving, unprecedented nationalist move, the Philippine Senate decided that it will no longer renew its 99-year contract with the United States to host US military bases in the Philippines. There were two major US military bases in the Philippines: Clark Air Base in Angeles City, Pampanga, and Subic Naval Base in Olongapo City, Zambales. For many years, economic gains were enjoyed by the host cities as PX goods coming in through the bases were sold in the city’s stores. Prostitution and bars flourished around the bases. Even the marginalized negritos took part in what the bases had to offer by scavenging military waste in its perimeters. One time, a US military serviceman guarding the base shot dead a Filipino negrito, allegedly mistaking the child for a wild pig.

With the Philippine Senate decision, the US government had no choice but to dismantle the bases. In their wake, the US military left toxic waste.

The groundwater and land of the nearby communities are contaminated with carcinogenic substances like solvents, unexploded ordnances and heavy metals, like lead or mercury.  Such is the case in areas around the former Clark Air Base in Pampanga, Subic Naval Base in Olongapo, Poro Point in La Union, and Camp John Hay in Baguio City.  Until This day, the US government has demonstrated no willingness to investigate or clean up any of the more than 30 confirmed contaminated sites in these areas.

                          -People's Task Force on Bases Clean-up & Arc Ecology, San Francisco

"I can recall, as commanding officer of an aircraft carrier in 1970, being closely monitored in US ports to insure proper control and disposal of waste material. This increased caution was not evident to me here Subic Bay in 1971 where ships, our aircraft and our industrial facilities were spewing polluted materials into the air, water and soil with no regard for the short-term or long-term effects. I began to see then the double-standard....When one adds the long-term effects of the discharge of untreated sewage, leakage and escape of PCP from electrical generators, it is beyond doubt that Subic Bay is contaminated in many ways which threaten the long-term health and safety of local residents…”

                                          -- Admiral Eugene Carrol,Jr., Retired,US Navy

Despite clamor from organized Philippine groups, demand to clean up the toxic waste left by the US bases fell upon deaf ears. Would the US military have dumped them at all if the country were inhabited by white citizens? Would the US government treated Filipinos better if the Philippines were a First World country? 

Most of those in power are white for many years in history. It doesn’t mean though, that if power were given to someone of a different skin color, the world will be better and there will be equality and justice. Racial equality in the US is until now an unattainable dream because racial integration is not fully achieved and is still being resisted. Acceptance and understanding may not come at all unless people learn to know people from other races, see beauty in them, and accept them as their own.

August 2009

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