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

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.

More Charity Alive – April 2021

From Violent to Violet – a Way to Protest

Sister Cathy sews squares for the Violet Protest -- a project that aims to let American congressmen and congresswomen know that so many people support the core values of compassion, compromise, and country over corporate influence. 

From the Archives

Inspiring Sister -- Sister Mary Emmanuel Sullivan, whose decades of work have laid a valuable foundation for Sisters of Charity – Halifax Congregational Archives. 

Charity Alive – February 2021

Reflections on our Chapter Statement

Sisters Anne Harvey, Mary Beth Moore, Judith Park and Margaret Coppenrath reflect on the Chapter Statement that shapes the vision of our Congregation for the next six years.

A Post-Pandemic Church: Prophetic Possibilities

The 2020 Chapter call to “…embrace our own vulnerability, trust the presence of the Spirit …and commit ourselves to …care for one another…” had special meaning for me because it came in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as I was completing my third book on healing the Church from the wounds of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. 

An Associate Story: The Circle of Charity

The path I am following today I believe was influenced by my connection to the Sisters of Charity.  I started as a Palliative Care volunteer at our local hospital.  I was invited to join the Hospice Board six years ago.  

Compelled by Love, You Responded

Please continue to partner with us as we work to heal the wounds of the embittered, be peacemakers in troubled places, and bring the compassion of the One who calls us to those who need it most.

From the Archives

A common thread in the Congregational history and charism is responding to a call to serve those in need.

2021-06-15T16:45:05+00:00By |Comments Off on Book Review: A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington
Go to Top