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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

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill

9 Oct

Mad scientists experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, undercover CIA agents pretending to be hippies, and sleazy Hollywood lawyers who make Saul Goodman and Lionel Hutz seem honest all populate the pages of Chaos, Tom O’Neill’s magnum opus that often seems too bizarre to be labeled non-fiction. What all of these figures have in common is that they have been connected to the murders of the Manson Family and O’Neill believes that their stories poke some major holes in the official narrative that has been retold so many times in pop culture. As O’Neill delves deeper into the stories of these characters living on the margins of Hollywood and the Haight-Ashbury, he comes to the chilling conclusion that almost everything that has been sold to the public about the Manson Family was based on lies.

The story of the Manson Family and their horrific killing spree known as the Tate-LaBianca Murders has been retold so frequently that when O’Neill began researching the story in 1999 for an article for the 30th anniversary of the killings in the now defunct Premiere magazine, he didn’t think there was anything to say that hadn’t been said hundreds of times before. Manson’s connection to the Beach Boys and the Beatles has become a part of the lore of the dark side of the 1960s counter-culture and the motive for his crimes, a white-supremacist race war he called “Helter Skelter,” was considered settled by lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s true-crime classic of the same name.

Although his editors initially expected a short piece about how Hollywood has changed since the killings, O’Neill’s obsessive research continued for twenty years as he uncovered documents about the Los Angeles Police Department, Manson’s probation officer, the CIA, and even the Warren Commission that left glaring inaccuracies in how Bugliosi sold the Helter Skelter motive to the public. Chaos is compulsively footnoted with these documents for any readers who may be skeptical about O’Neill’s sources.

I don’t want to reveal much more than what I have already said about Chaos. The book is mind-blowing in scope and it’s best that readers start Chaos not knowing much about the shocking discoveries O’Neill uncovers. While readers may feel frustrated that O’Neill is hesitant to draw any definitive conclusions from his research, the joy of reading Chaos is less in figuring out exactly what happened to Charles Manson and more in being alongside O’Neill as he explores the mysterious figures who populate the underbelly of California’s counterculture in 60s and 70s.  Chaos may be one of the most entertaining books of the true crime genre in years.  As well as being available from the Hoboken Public Libary in print, you can borrow it as a digital audiobook from eBCCLS.

Written by
Karl Schwartz
Young Adult Librarian

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