A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington

23 Oct

A Terrible Thing to Waste
I first became interested in the work of Harriet A. Washington when my home city of Newark was hit with a lead water crisis that has frequently been compared in terms of severity to Flint, Michigan. I wondered why such environmental disasters hit the poorest communities in the United States the hardest and what the social effects of long term lead exposure would mean for the children of Newark. In A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind, Washington brilliantly lays out the sobering research about environmental racism and the profound effects it has on the well-being of some of the most vulnerable Americans.

“Environmental Racism” is a term used by public health researchers and sociologists to describe the disproportionate way in which black, Latino, and indigenous communities face the brunt of environmental hazards, often leading to devastating health consequences. A prominent example of environmental racism that Washington cites is the fact that almost all of the cases of lead poisoning in Baltimore were found among the city’s black children. While white residents of Baltimore were approved for cheap mortgages in the suburbs after World War II and moved into newly built homes, African Americans were redlined out of these neighborhoods and forced to stay in unsafe homes in the inner city, many of which to this day have never been fully remediated of the lead paint that continues to poison the developing brains of infants in Baltimore.

Washington bluntly describes the profound social consequences of environmental racism. Many of these toxins such as lead, untested chemicals, and waste from landfills that find their way disproportionately into minority communities cause severe cognitive damage. Washington doesn’t believe that IQ is a good predictor of intelligence, but she does believe that it can show how a person has been harmed by bad environmental policies. In contrast to those who would argue that intelligence is innate or genetic, Washington’s research shows that differences in IQ between different groups of people correlates most strongly to the type of environment they live in. Washington demonstrates how the average intelligence of groups of people can rise dramatically when they are exposed to better nutrition and cleaner environments, refuting that commonly held belief that intelligence is a static trait.

A Terrible Thing to Waste is an incredibly important book by one today’s smartest environmental researchers. I found many of my beliefs about intelligence, race, poverty, and urban planning to be constantly challenged while reading Washington’s book. I was inspired by the stories of communities who fought back against environmental racism and despite the often depressing subject matter, I felt hopeful by the end of the book that communities can work together to solve these problems.

Written by
Karl Schwartz
Young Adult Librarian

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