Environmental Racism Is A Public Health Problem, Too

“The same pattern keeps emerging of bad behavior and it needs to be addressed,” says Washington on incidences of exposure to environmental toxins.

WDET’s Book Club is back for a third year, and this summer’s selection is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” a formative work of the 20th century and winner of the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953.

“It’s an American problem. One of the things we don’t do well and we need to do well is confronting industry.” — Harriet Washington, author

Detroit Today’s Stephen Henderson and readers will discuss the novel weekly on-air and online in the WDET Book Club Facebook community. You can follow along by reading three to four chapters a week until the end of August.

Listen: Harriet Washington on environmental racism.

In this installment we speak with Harriet A. Washington, an award-winning author and medical ethicist, about her book “A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind.”

Washington’s defines environmental racism as, “the disproportionate exposure of people of color to toxic environmental agents.”

Washington’s book outlines the racial disparities in exposure rates to environmental hazards and the impact those toxins have on health outcomes and brain development.

Discussion Points

Washington says that while poverty certainly makes it more likely that a person will be exposed to toxic material, race is actually a much stronger determinant in exposure to environmental hazards.

“It’s not that poverty isn’t a risk factor, but race is such a risk factor that it overshadows” poverty, says Washington.

Housing discrimination, Washington says, is so inherent in the United States that many people don’t realize how robust the issue truly is or that it is still in practice today. Washington says housing discrimination, coupled with inequitable education and lack of economic opportunity, leaves many African Americans unable to move from toxic environments. “People are assigned to a life of being poisoned,” says Washington.

Flint, Mich. has become one of the most well-known instances of widespread poisoning in American history. Since, other instances of water contamination have made national news. Washington says it’s important to not think about these cases as isolated instances, but rather indicative of a country-wide issue.

“It’s an American problem. One of the things we don’t do well and we need to do well is confronting industry,” says Washington.

Keep the Conversation Going

Respond on Facebook to this week’s prompt about Chapter 12:

The narrator, wearing overalls, walks into the Men’s House and suddenly no longer fits in, pointing to the role of clothing and aspirational social climbing.

What does this make you notice about the role of certain social cues we get from clothing even today?

Further Listening

“The Yellow House” Author Sarah Broom On Ritual, Home and Careful Placemaking

Rev. Jim Wallis on “America’s Original Sin” and Ellison’s “Invisible Man”​

“White Rage” Author on Racial Justice and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”

WDET Book Club: “Invisible Man,” Black Lives Matter and the Politics of Ralph Ellison

Author Colson Whitehead on “The Nickel Boys,” “Invisible Man,” and Racial Inequity

WDET Book Club: Author JM Holmes on “Invisible Man” and Identity

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