Left behind, forgotten, mocked, stigmatized. That’s how journalist Chris Arnade describes those profiled for his book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.
It’s become a familiar story—the breakdown of a formerly booming factory town, now teeming with crumbling infrastructure and abandoned buildings. Once economically thriving small towns, boasting high employment rates and happy families, now claim the opposite, subsisting on the people unlucky enough to be stuck there—physically, financially, and emotionally unable or unwilling to leave.
In many of those towns today, including places such as Hunts Point, New York, located on a peninsula in the South Bronx, people rarely depart the neighborhood. This is where Arnade began his journey to meet and ultimately, advocate for, the citizens in “back row America,” where poverty and geography silence the voices who need to be heard.
Arnade, a former Wall Street banker, stumbled upon what would eventually become this book after examining his privilege as a highly credentialed, educated male in New York City. He has a PhD in physics, lives in Brooklyn, sends his kids to private school, and, like many in his elite world, considered himself open-minded, inclusive, and progressive. However, he didn’t actually engage any of the people he claimed to care about. Meeting them changed everything.
In Hunts Point and other marginalized communities nationwide, he met the people all of our well-intended social welfare policies and political debates aim to help. What he found was great despair, a growing epidemic of addiction, and a large number of people who are trapped in their lives. He also discovered that the same people struggling with substance use disorders, prostitution, and societal rejection were seeking respect and dignity amid the brokenness.
As one man in the book put it: “When you don’t have anything, respect is all you have.” And that sums up much of the message Arnade attempts to send in these pages.
The stories of Dignity come to life with pages of powerful photojournalism to accompany each vignette. Arnade makes it clear that “front row” America has a distorted vision about those sitting behind them. The economically privileged are neatly separated from the back by ZIP codes and Ivy League degrees, attempting to bridge the gap with charitable donations or social media posts about the downtrodden. The front row supports social welfare policies aimed at creating change—without ever speaking to a single human they’re supposed to help.
Arnade went into the places he was told not to go, the places “nice people” don’t frequent. What he found there is great faith and strong communities in unlikely places, namely, the local McDonalds. In nearly every neighborhood he visited across the country, these fast food spaces housed young and old, gathered for hours all portions of the day. They were desperate for a place to convene for human contact, and this was the only available warm or air-conditioned location.
He spent weeks befriending those in each neighborhood, camping out at the McDonalds or local bar, to get a sense of why so many remained in these forgotten towns. He discovered that the life those in the “front row” think their “back row” counterparts want is not so.
Many prefer to stay where they are, near family and familiarity—and their big dreams are simple. They long for what I call in my book the “luxury of the ordinary,” where the trauma and addictions of the past (and present) disappear. Most aren’t looking to become CEOs, but to fulfill their roles as mothers or fathers, full-time employees, and respected members of society.
Arnade points out that because these people live in towns that are “struggling and labeled failures… part of their identity has become intertwined with failure.” Such an identity crisis makes it that much harder to envision another kind of life.
In the past three years, members of the media, analysts, and politicians have spent countless hours dissecting the anatomy of a Trump voter. In “Dignity,” Arnade reveals the faces and lives of some of those people who have been tossed around as empty statistics and “humiliated,” he writes.
The faces and stories add much needed substance to conversations regarding both political policies and personal pursuits to uplift the broken. The book doesn’t include policy solutions, but reminds readers that a major part of the problem is the reality that “we have removed ourselves from those we believe we are trying to help.”
Dignity offers a deeper understanding of the men and women we are missing in our increasingly class-segregated society. However, one will never fully grasp this sentiment without crossing the railroad tracks to visit a neighborhood or town like Hunts Point town nearby.