by Mary Flynn, Congregational Archivist
In her 2019 book A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind, medical ethicist and writer Harriet A. Washington sheds light on the higher rates of environmental poisoning in communities of colour in the United States that have led to a decrease in IQ and an increase of health concerns, behavioural issues, and even crime. Washington begins the book by exploring misconceptions and myths about intelligence and race, arguing that IQ is not innate, genetic, or impervious to change. The book continues with chapters on race, intelligence, and “brain thieves” such as lead, microbes, environmental neurotoxins, and prenatal risks, before concluding with steps for individuals, communities, and governments to take to prevent future brain drain.
A Terrible Thing to Waste was originally published in 2019 but updated with a preface from 2020 that touches on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Every documented risk factor for coronavirus infection and death is made worse by environmental racism,” Washington writes, adding that African Americans are less likely to have their own family doctors and instead use emergency rooms, which often face closures. People of colour are less likely to be able to work from their homes, which are more often shared living spaces than single-family homes. Pre-existing conditions such as obesity and asthma make for worse outcomes for COVID-19 patients.
Washington highlights the pervasive “blame the victim” mentality that emphasizes personal responsibility as a way out of systemic racism. If you own a home with lead pipes or poisoned water, who will buy the property so that your family could move to a healthier community? How could a parent choose between breastmilk that could transmit lead or baby food with alarming levels of heavy metals? In a community such as Flint, Michigan, which endured years of poisoned water sources, how do you rebuild trust after remediation? No amount of personal responsibility will mitigate the effects of untested or unregulated levels of potentially harmful chemicals.
The final chapters on how an individual could lessen the effects of environmental toxins seemed like an afterthought. Purchasing water filters, air purifiers, and making organic homemade baby food is a band-aid solution to a much larger evil. Though the focus of the book is on the United States, Canadian readers will notice parallels in contaminated drinking water and pipelines on Indigenous land and elevated cancer rates in African Nova Scotian communities close to landfills. A Terrible Thing to Waste is a well-researched and eye-opening read that explores environmental racism in an accessible way and should be required reading for anyone interested in racial justice.