A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind

A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind

A "powerful and indispensable book" on the devastating consequences of environmental racism--and what we can do to remedy its toxic effects on marginalized communities.Did you know...Middle-class African-American households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 live in neighborhoods that are more polluted than those of very poor white households with incomes le...

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Title:A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind
Author:Harriet A. Washington
Rating:

A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind Reviews

  • Bayley

    Being a science communicator is hard. You have to be able to walk the incredibly fine line of not talking down to the people who are experts in the field while simultaneously trying to convey exactly the right amount to information to make the layman reader understand and not feel overwhelmed or too stupid to keep listening. Harriet Washington does a fantastic job of this.

    The introduction stars us off on the topic of IQ. I was mildly worried I was not going to enjoy this book because I knew jus

    Being a science communicator is hard. You have to be able to walk the incredibly fine line of not talking down to the people who are experts in the field while simultaneously trying to convey exactly the right amount to information to make the layman reader understand and not feel overwhelmed or too stupid to keep listening. Harriet Washington does a fantastic job of this.

    The introduction stars us off on the topic of IQ. I was mildly worried I was not going to enjoy this book because I knew just enough about IQ to be dangerous. But Washington takes the reader on a history of what IQ measures, its flaws and limitations, and defines its use in her book.

    The way she addressed IQ was interesting, and it gave the reader a solid framework for the book.

    Washington is very witty, the topic of this book obviously does not leave a lot of room for levity, but the way she addresses some areas of the book made me very interested in scrolling through her twitter, she seems like she is hilarious.

    Back to the content. Washington takes the reader through different environmental factors that can be detrimental to humans health on multiple levels. She addresses the effects on our bodies and minds and then she dives into the statistics and case studies that show these factors have a higher chance of harming people of color, most often black and indigenous populations. Heavy metals (lots of talk about lead in specific), environmental neurotoxins, microbes, and other chemicals are all delved into during Part 2. She addresses how they harm adults, children, and fetuses, and how dangerously hard it can be to prove they are actually harming people, especially when those people are black.

    I learned so much while reading this book. It was at times overwhelming with the amount of information I was being introduced to at once, but this book does not require you have an extensive scientific background to understand the point Washington is making.

    Also, to alleviate the overwhelming amount of horrible reality you will be confronted with, Washington leaves the book on a hopeful note. She gives the reader specific things that can be done and writes hopefully about current and future political action to protect the minds and bodies of all vulnerable people.

    When I picked this book up I did not know about her past books, now that I have read

    I will certainly be going through her backlist soon! I will be recommending this book to people interested in public health, structural racism, environmentalism, and nonfiction focused on science. This book is released on July 23rd, 2019.

  • Kelsey Grode

    Excellent book on environmental racism in America and the effects felt by people both directly and indirectly. Her information about how environmental racism impacts IQ was fascinating and easy to understand. I figured the topic of lead would come up, as well as the situation in Flint, Michigan, but Washington was able to do a deep dive that can still be engaging even if you think you know a bit about the subject.

    The author does a great job outlining the scientific and medical facts

    Excellent book on environmental racism in America and the effects felt by people both directly and indirectly. Her information about how environmental racism impacts IQ was fascinating and easy to understand. I figured the topic of lead would come up, as well as the situation in Flint, Michigan, but Washington was able to do a deep dive that can still be engaging even if you think you know a bit about the subject.

    The author does a great job outlining the scientific and medical facts necessary to explain this issue while keeping it engaging. Oftentimes I've found that when an author includes too many statistic or scientific words that are way beyond my knowledge I can tune out or skip over it a bit, but Washington is able to artfully weave in those important numbers while still making it easy to understand for the layman. She does a good job of towing the line between presenting the information so that people who have no background in this subject are able to understand, but to also keep it at a level that those who do have solid foundation knowledge can build off of what they already know.

    This was a really fascinating read about an important topic. I would definitely recommend!

  • Lois

    This was incredibly well researched and while the subject matter is weighty, the writing style is easily accessible.

    This is critical reading to understand the IMPACT of the IQ myth of the Black Community in the US and worldwide.

    First many of the original West African Black subjects tested for IQ were orphaned children fleeing conflict. Also the researchers measuring the IQ were white supremacists. Both factors impact these original IQ scores.

    Also nutrition and environment impac

    This was incredibly well researched and while the subject matter is weighty, the writing style is easily accessible.

    This is critical reading to understand the IMPACT of the IQ myth of the Black Community in the US and worldwide.

    First many of the original West African Black subjects tested for IQ were orphaned children fleeing conflict. Also the researchers measuring the IQ were white supremacists. Both factors impact these original IQ scores.

    Also nutrition and environment impact IQ scores.

    The history of how this has been used is demoralizing.

    I appreciate this crucial understanding of how IQ and Black identity intersect.

    Also the IQ is NOT a measurement of intelligence, just in case you don't read the book.

  • Camille McCarthy

    Washington brings to light the damage of environmental racism on the IQ of people of color through incredibly strong writing and hard-hitting data. This book made me incredibly angry, as we all should be, at how people of color have been treated and are still treated today. She points out how the "achievement gap" may be at least partially attributed to children of color literally being poisoned and robbed of their intellect from environmental factors such as lead paint, PCBs, and polluted air.

    Washington brings to light the damage of environmental racism on the IQ of people of color through incredibly strong writing and hard-hitting data. This book made me incredibly angry, as we all should be, at how people of color have been treated and are still treated today. She points out how the "achievement gap" may be at least partially attributed to children of color literally being poisoned and robbed of their intellect from environmental factors such as lead paint, PCBs, and polluted air. This book is a must-read, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone going into any industry that involves producing chemical waste or manufacturing chemicals. She incorporates a lot of issues into this book, including the lack of testing of chemicals to tell whether they have adverse effects on people, the discrepancy between effects of chemicals on adults and effects of those same chemicals on children, the burden of proof being on those who are adversely affected rather than those creating chemicals, and the principle of preventing harm before it is caused rather than arguing after the fact that this chemical isn't harmful. She also talks about IQ tests' unreliability and about how attributing differences in IQ to genetic differences between the races is not only racist but incorrect scientifically, and the definition of race being a social construct with no scientific basis. I really appreciated her nuanced writing style, the clarity of the points she was making, and her breadth on this topic. I will definitely be looking for her other writing, and I highly, highly recommend this book.

  • Cathy

    The issue of environmental racism is one that many are sadly unaware of. There is a great deal of ignorance around the fact that where you live can have a significant impact on your potential for success. There is little discussion regarding how often decisions that can have a deleterious effect on quality of life in these environments are based on race.

    Consider for example:

    * The lack of effort to remediate lead-based paint in black neighborhoods.

    * The freque

    The issue of environmental racism is one that many are sadly unaware of. There is a great deal of ignorance around the fact that where you live can have a significant impact on your potential for success. There is little discussion regarding how often decisions that can have a deleterious effect on quality of life in these environments are based on race.

    Consider for example:

    * The lack of effort to remediate lead-based paint in black neighborhoods.

    * The frequency with which black neighborhoods are chosen for locally unwanted land uses.

    * That black families are more likely to live in proximity to oil and gas facilities.

    * The impact of environment and infection on fetal and early childhood development.

    A result of these environmental factors is often impaired cognitive function. And the self-fulfilling prophesy that black students are often several IQ points behind their white classmates in these areas. But as author, Harriet A. Washington also discusses, the manner in which ways in which IQ is measured is flawed and racially slanted.

    I’m just scratching the surface of an extremely well-researched book here.

    The book is statistically dense and heavily footnoted, but the author’s efforts to carefully explain each point and put data in context puts the book with reach of the average reader.

    I gave it 4, but it was 5 up until the section on what individuals can do about it. It's my opinion that many of the solutions offered were unrealistic for those living in poverty such as buying bottled water or filters if the water in the area has heavy metals, etc.

    Washington discusses the problems with a the quality and potential toxicity of foods sold in dollar stores, but in areas that are food deserts, dollar stores are often the only choice for groceries. She recommends home-canning, but many people can’t afford the equipment to can correctly and safely and may not have the storage space for what they can.

    In a way, it reminds me of charter schools, which are technically open to everyone, but without at least one engaged parent who isn’t working three jobs are not a real option.

    The next chapter provides what I consider more realistic solutions such as community involvement and political activism. It’s tough to combat an institutional problem as an individual, but there is power in numbers.

    I recommend that nearly everyone read this book, it’s full of data, information and insight on the many ways that institutional racism plays out in the environment.

    This honest review is based on an ARC copy of the book I won through Goodreads.

  • David Wineberg

    There is a (perhaps) lesser known aspect of American racism whereby people and institutions assume blacks are dumber than whites, that they are untrainable and don’t deserve as much pay for the same work as whites. Blacks don’t think clearly or fast enough, they don’t process or retain well, and they’re slow to move, think and speak. Harriet Washington shows in no uncertain terms that blacks have been systematically neglected and poisoned into this condition in A Terrible Thing To Waste.

  • Corvus

    Harriet Washington is known by many as the author of the harrowing and important "Medical Apartheid" in which she details a long history of medical and scientific abuse of Black individuals and communities. I consider this mandatory reading for any US American. "

    ," brings a whole new dimension

    Harriet Washington is known by many as the author of the harrowing and important "Medical Apartheid" in which she details a long history of medical and scientific abuse of Black individuals and communities. I consider this mandatory reading for any US American. "

    ," brings a whole new dimension of horror of what it is like to be Black, Brown, and/or poor in the USA. She tackles everything from exposure to dangerous pollutants to lack of access to healthy options and astutely describes how they all fit together in the realm of environmental racism.

    The book starts off fairly quickly in discussing IQ disparities among poor people and/or people of color and this remains a theme throughout the book. I did find this part to contradict itself a bit, though. Washington makes excellent arguments about and gives a detailed history of how flawed IQ testing is. Yet, she still uses IQ points as a measure of environmental racism. Her book actually stands well on it's own without inclusion of this metric, or at least without centering it as much as she did. She also repeatedly uses the r-word and seems to lack the necessary analysis of disability justice that would be appropriate for this work. I have a review copy, so this could be something that has been or will change in the future printing. But, someone should have picked up on or sought out the fact that "Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities," is the correct way to discuss what she was speaking about. There was also a slight air of "disabled people are a drain on their families and society" which contributes to the ableist notion that people with intellectual disability do not offer anything to society or have a purpose. I am not saying people should seek out or want their children to be born with I&DD, nor should they lack upset for the higher rate of preventable illness and/or disability in their communities. I just think Washington could have been a bit more careful with her words here and that she or an editor should have picked up on the reality that using r*****ed- a term known as a common insult that many I&DD and Deaf people connect with extreme trauma- was not appropriate. Her description of the flaws, pseudoscience, and racial bias involved with IQ testing was excellent and it becomes clouded by the flaws in delivery.

    Washington's book is organized in such a way that someone can skip around if they need to. This does mean that sometimes there is repetition, but it also is valuable for people unfamiliar with the topic to be reminded or for people only interested in reading one section out of order. Topics covered in different sections include lead and other pollutant poisoning, the extreme differences between fetal, childhood, and adult reactions to exposure, food deserts with copious access to only convenience and liquor stores' attachment to environmental racism, lack of access to appropriate medical care, and what is possibly the most horrifying as far as the squick factor goes- "Bugs in the System."

    The details of lead poisoning from the unethical and abusive lead exposure experiments on Black and/or poor children and families in Baltimore to the water crisis in Flint are written in an incredibly engaging way. Toxic exposure is not simply that the exposure exists, but also all of the corruption and predatory practices of governments, scientists, and corporations that not only allow things to continue, but often actively support the atrocities. Early lead exposure is also linked to future criminal behavior- behaviors that, in white supremacist society, are always blamed on a Black person's character rather than their circumstances.

    The elements of misogyny/misogynoir and it's link to environmental racism are clear in the sections discussing fetal exposure. Poor women, mostly of color, have been penalized via everything from fines to forced sterilization and/or imprisonment by the criminal injustice system for "feticide" or "abuse" due to exposures during pregnancy- including ones that occurred before they knew they were pregnant. At times, it is used by anti-choice lobbies to further their fight against reproductive autonomy for women and others who can get pregnant. At others, it is a way for governments or corporations to cover their tracks.

    If I wasn't already vegan, the "Bugs in the System" chapter might have turned me. The chapter details countless bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections that are dangerous for everyone, but end up especially concentrated in Black, poor, and/or other marginalized populations. The reason I mention veganism is that I learned how many parasites are in animal flesh and how easily one can contract them. I was already pretty terrified of parasites. Now, I'm ever more aware and disgusted.

    Finally, Washington offers a large section with a wide variety of solutions and actions that people can take to fight against environmental racism's effects on their lives. The advice includes healthcare, food consumption, housing access, familial care, legal options, and organizing/activist advice. There are very good suggestions in this section. I'm white but have poverty line income, so I am a person who shops at Dollar Tree tree and cheap stores. I threw out a couple of dishes and won't be buying some foods again, after reading her section on how many dollar stores use imported food and pottery that may contain lead. We in Pittsburgh are already dealing with our own lead water crisis, I don't need even more in my system.

    I also really appreciate how carefully Washington approached this section. She made sure not to give in to pseudoscience hype like that of anti-vaxxers, anti-any-fluoride, anti-all preservative movements. Yet, she still leaves room for new research and for people to make the decisions about these things that work for them. She acknowledges and validates the reasons why Black people especially may distrust the medical system. She is also firm that vaccines do not cause autism and that mercury that is linked to disease is no longer in most vaccines. She is clear that fluoride's benefit for dental health- especially for those without dental care access- may outweigh any costs or risks involved. She offers a long list of preservatives generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and stresses that these preservatives are healthier than it would be to contract diseases they prevent, but acknowledges that some preservatives are unhealthy and thus avoiding processed foods is always a good idea. Her tips for organizing and activism offer a brief catalogue of the lack of Black and other people of color representation in environmental organizations, despite them being the biggest human targets of many of the problems tackled. This has changed somewhat, but not enough.

    Overall, A Terrible Thing to Waste is a well written, well researched, and very necessary look at environmental racism. Despite its flaws in disability analysis and representation, it still offers an great amount of important information in a relatively small package (300 pages for all of this info is not very much.) The book hits shelves in July 2019 and is definitely worth picking up.

  • Ben Babcock

    The common reaction to people seeing what I was reading with

    was, “Environmental racism? What’s that?” So I explained it to them, fairly succinctly I think, because it really isn’t that difficult of a concept. Indeed, when I mentioned that, historically, decisions about where to dump waste and where to build factories and how to zone cities or rent houses have disproportionately affected marginalized and racialized people, most of those who asked nodded and went, “Oh, yeah.”

    The common reaction to people seeing what I was reading with

    was, “Environmental racism? What’s that?” So I explained it to them, fairly succinctly I think, because it really isn’t that difficult of a concept. Indeed, when I mentioned that, historically, decisions about where to dump waste and where to build factories and how to zone cities or rent houses have disproportionately affected marginalized and racialized people, most of those who asked nodded and went, “Oh, yeah.” Maybe that’s just a sign of the crowd I hang out with. But it really isn’t that hidden, not in an era where we know the names Flint, Michigan in the United States and Grassy Narrows, here in Canada. Harriet A. Washington’s book isn’t edifying in the sense that it reveals this heretofore unseen racism. Rather,

    is electrifying in the depth to which Washington chronicles the scientific background of this phenomenon, the historical connections, and the social and economic consequences.

    Thank you to the publisher for sending me a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.

    Washington begins with a frank discussion on IQ. I found this beneficial, and indeed, I appreciated the way in which she challenged some of my views. Aware of the racist associations with IQ testing, I was in the camp of “throw it all out.” Yet Washington points out that, although not really great for measuring general intelligence as it first claimed, IQ tests do seem to correlate with many of the skills that predict success in a lot of the office-type jobs that predominate in America these days. So in that sense, I guess I see the utility of such a measure, even if what we do with it is ill-advised. Washington reminds my privileged white self that as long as IQ is used in any serious form, it behoves us to try to level the playing field of IQ testing, as it were, rather than simply pretend it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.

    From there, of course, she delves into the nature of IQ testing and its racist background. Then she pivots into discussing neurotoxins (such as lead) and their effect, especially cumulatively and especially on children. I want to warn you: parts of this book are just heartbreaking.

    I challenge you to listen to how poor, Black families can’t even sell their homes because the pollution on their land has gutted the value, trapping them in a vicious cycle of toxic poverty.

    Reading this book, I continually thought back to my country and our treatment of Indigenous peoples. I mentioned Grassy Narrows, famously a site of mercury contamination. But resource exploitation and colonialism go hand-in-hand in my country; hundreds of kilometres north of my city, the government and industry are anxiously attempting to build the Ring of Fire, a multi-billion-dollar mining operation for diamonds, chromite, and other important resources. The trouble is, this will inevitably result in environmental contamination—and it won’t be me who is exposed. It’ll be the First Nations who live in northern Ontario, some of them already in communities with poor drinking water. So Canada is little better than the States when it comes to this issue.

    is laudable too in its multidimensional approach to this issue. Washington doesn’t just talk about lead poisoning or dumping, oh no. She talks about malnutrition. She talks about preventable, treatable diseases that rob us of brainpower. She covers so many aspects of this issue, each time relating it back to the fact that this is a race issue, because, as she says, even poor white communities are typically healthier than well-off Black communities. (She does note limitations of the research she uses. She says she wishes she could have explored poverty as a separate variable more, but that there is actually a dearth of data, especially when it comes to poor white people. And that is definitely a problem.)

    Washington makes an interesting appeal to the reader in relating this problem to economic shortfalls. In addition, of course, to simply pointing out that this is racist and wrong, she argues that this hobbles America as an economic power. It diminishes the country's average IQ, and it robs the country of thousands of minds who might otherwise be bright, innovative, and useful. Honestly, this line of argument left me a little uneasy. I don’t like the idea of treating people as capital, of thinking about our potential based on how it impacts the bottom line. Nevertheless, I see what Washington is doing here. She’s trying to fight the racist capitalists on their own turf. She points out that the data do not support hereditarians who think “nothing can be done.” And thank goodness for that.

    is harrowing and heartbreaking at points. It’s also chock full of logic, facts and figures, basically all sorts of cool science. It’s exactly the kind of non-fiction I want to read: social justice polemic backed up by research and challenging me to consider the ways in which our society fails marginalized people. Because I am a part of that society, and I need to know about this, in as much detail as I can handle, so I can start doing something about it. There was a time when companies lied to us and said lead was good for us. That time has passed. But the lies don’t go away; they just change costuming. We need to keep learning, and keep pressuring those in power, especially those of us who have the privilege of doing so in comfort and safety.

  • Jake

    The book begins with a scathing attack on scientific racism. This is the view that certain races are more intelligent than others based on their genetic makeup. Intellectuals like Charles Murray and Francis Crick have continued a long tradition (a tradition begun to justify slavery) of arguing that it's just the DNA and there's nothing you can do about racial inequities. The methodology of the studies suggesting that blacks are inherently less intelligent was laughable. For example, in places li

    The book begins with a scathing attack on scientific racism. This is the view that certain races are more intelligent than others based on their genetic makeup. Intellectuals like Charles Murray and Francis Crick have continued a long tradition (a tradition begun to justify slavery) of arguing that it's just the DNA and there's nothing you can do about racial inequities. The methodology of the studies suggesting that blacks are inherently less intelligent was laughable. For example, in places like the USA and Europe the sample of tested participants was pretty representative of the general population. In Ethiopia they only tested some kids from one orphanage. Surprise! The study said that Africans were less intelligent. It's usually your living conditions that make you brain power. Asians traditionally score higher, but as noted here, the rich Asian do better than the poor Asians, despite similar genes. Yet, the advocates of the theory still ran with the conclusions. Another thing is that IQ testing is not an indicator of intelligence. As the creator of IQ testing pointed out, it's a pretty good judge of who will succeed in a first world economy. However, it would judge an illiterate mechanic or farmer in a poor country as just plain stupid if interpreted as an intelligence test, despite their ingenuity and ability to solve problems. So that is the first section of the book. It was a brutal take down and I loved it. The next part focused on environmental and economic factors in intelligence. (And in fairness to Charles Murray, he often said "race and environment" in his controversial statements, while the author and Murray would agree on the environment part, it wasn't mentioned in this book). This sections contained a lot of scientific info on the effects on the brain of certain chemicals and biological agents. It certainly was well researched and pounded out the data and mentioned when examples were anecdotal or needed further research. I just didn't enjoy it as much. I'll just include two quick examples to show the authors point. Exhibit A: In Flint, a predominately black community, the water crisis is still not completely solved. When an auto manufacturer discovered the tainted water was corroding their cars, there water was fixed post haste. Exhibit B: When a white community objected to the Dakota Access Pipeline in their backyard, they had the ability to go through the proper legal channels to get it moved. It moved to the Standing Rock Tribe. They were labeled terrorists for objecting to the same thing. And of course there was shortly an oil spill. And then there are the Superfund sites. When a corporation poisons the environment, they can go bankrupt with their decision makers keeping their gains, and rely on taxpayers to foot the bill of cleanup for decades. It always seems much more sensible to place the effluent in poor and minority areas. This is getting long, so I'll sum up. The idea of the book was great and it started with a bang. I just got bogged down in the scientific analysis of the causes in the latter part (and it also made me feel like I wanted to wash my hands, ew). Thank you to the publisher for the free copy!

  • Chasity

    This is insane. I live in Anniston Alabama and while she states the legal side of the whole Monsanto situation and pcbs.. wherever she got her info on the nature of the city is very... VERY.. innacurate. My children play outside all the time. Our parks are just fine. I've NEVER seen anyone cut their grass with a mask, shoo their children away from parks, our children are not eerily quiet, there is NO backdrop of biohazard signs and chain link fence. Our town is like any other town.. I've never h

    This is insane. I live in Anniston Alabama and while she states the legal side of the whole Monsanto situation and pcbs.. wherever she got her info on the nature of the city is very... VERY.. innacurate. My children play outside all the time. Our parks are just fine. I've NEVER seen anyone cut their grass with a mask, shoo their children away from parks, our children are not eerily quiet, there is NO backdrop of biohazard signs and chain link fence. Our town is like any other town.. I've never heard of any kids being born with two brains. We grow vegetables in our dirt with no problems and they are delicious. Washington clearly needs to learn to go to these places to do her own research instead of obviously taking the word of hypochondriac weirdos who do not represent the rest of the town. I don't know about the other towns in this book but if the depiction is anything like my towns portrayal, on behalf of those residents let me say.. please stop spreading innacurate assumptions about our cities. This is shameful. And on the note of racism.. our town is 49 percent African American.. and 44 percent Caucasian. The rest is made up by Latino and Asian etc. Please stop victimizing the black population that what I've seen as just as healthy and smart as the white population here. Good Lord!

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