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What We’re Reading: A Terrible Thing to Waste, by Harriet A. Washington

Ten, twenty, one hundred times a day, I think about the end times. They are coming and I am terrified.

In July, Alaska experienced record-high heat of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. A paper released by an Australian think tank laid out future scenarios, based on scientific research about climate change, that include massive displacement, cities abandoned, and devastating food shortages by 2050 should leaders fail reduce the degree of warming by 2030.

I have never been in the least bit skeptical of climate change, yet even just a few years ago, I could go a day or two without thinking about it beyond the brief moments when I dropped a plastic bottle or a flattened carboard box into a recycling bin. That was, I know, a different kind of denial steeped in relative privilege. As is so often the case in so many catastrophes, for many low-income communities of color, the future is, in many ways, already here.

Last year, even as the Trump administration shut down many of the institutions and policies established to address environmental racism, researchers in the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study demonstrating that people of color are far more likely to live near polluters—landfills and factories, for example—and to breathe polluted air.

Also last year, I was infuriated by yet another rearing of the hideous and idiotic head of pseudo-scientific racism in a feud between the philosopher and author Sam Harris and Vox’s Founder and Editor at Large, Ezra Klein. Sam Harris had interviewed The Bell Curve author Charles Murray on his podcast. In The Bell Curve, Murray argued, among other things, that the United States should limit immigration from Africa because, he claimed, Black people have lower IQs than white people. In the interview with Harris, both men, who are white, asserted that African Americans are intrinsically less intelligent than white Americans due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Vox published a piece criticizing the interview and Harris challenged Klein to a debate.

Last month, I read Harriet A. Washington’s new book A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind. Washington, the winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award for her book Medical Apartheid, provides damning data and stories to illuminate how communities of color in America are being poisoned due to decisions and policies that expose them to dangerous levels of environmental toxins. This poisoning has “horrifying cognitive symptoms” as evidenced by effects on IQ.

We need to face the facts. We must face the future that is already here, that has been here for too many people of color in America for a very long time.

Washington, as many before her, disputes that IQ alone can be used to measure intelligence. And, she points out that the test can be invalid due to culture and context. Yet, she argues that the test can be used, rather than to measure innate ability (as some pseudo-scientific racists have used it), to provide a limited measure of achievement.

A Terrible Thing to Waste is a difficult book to read. But we need to face the facts. We must face the future that is already here, that has been here for too many people of color in America for a very long time. And, Washington both highlights the important work of environmental justice activists and offers ways that all of us can fight for cleaner air, for cleaner water, for reducing the degree of warming. Being terrified, being infuriated, must not paralyze us. We must fight for our planet, for communities of color, for all of our lives.

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