Review of A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington
A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind
by Harriet A. Washington
The common reaction to people seeing what I was reading with A Terrible Thing to Waste 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, A Terrible Thing to Waste 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. It’s sickening—and frankly should be sickening to any reader—to think that right now millions of people are exposed to debilitating toxins simply because of where they live. 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.
A Terrible Thing to Waste 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.
A Terrible Thing to Waste 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.