Chris Arnade has written a good book. And like the Good Book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America was sometimes a tough read. This was not only because of the hard-luck stories he reports, or the humanizing pictures he took of those telling them. It is also because this book is as much a secular sermon as a story, a jeremiad Arnade delivers to and against his own class.
It begins with Arnade’s journey of repentance. A physics PhD working on Wall Street for Citibank, his penchant for meandering walks took him into the isolated and troubled Hunts Point neighborhood in the Bronx. He thought of himself as a good progressive, but as he kept coming back and became acquainted with the locals, he began to learn “how cloistered and privileged my world was and how narrow and selfish I was. Not just in how I lived but in what and how I thought.”
He got to know the lowest of the low in Hunts Point — the addicts, homeless, and hookers (often combined in one person). He quit his job to report on what he saw, but he eventually had to quit alcohol and Hunts Point, both of which he had gotten in with too deep.
He was a banker turned writer and photographer, not a pastor or social worker. He couldn’t “save” the neighborhood or his troubled friends there. So he decided to leave New York and travel the country to document what he calls “back row America.” This is Hillbilly Elegy in reverse.
Discarding Progressive Pieties
He found McDonald’s and drugs, churches and shuttered storefronts, community and decay. He documented it with interviews, stories, and many thousand-word pictures. His subjects are trying to maintain their dignity in a world that left them behind and looks down on them for it.
Despite his progressive pieties, Arnade was part of that disdainful “front row”—the eager learners and strivers “moving on and up with the GDP.” The front row runs the world and believes itself to be inclusive, offering everyone a shot at life in the front row and accepting and even celebrating minorities who make it. But they often disrespect and condemn those who are left in the back row.
Front-row success required education and mobility, so “staying put was seen as failure.” Arnade and his class were successful, at least by the metrics they accepted. He writes that “We primarily valued what we could measure, and that meant material wealth. The things that couldn’t be easily measured—community, dignity, faith, happiness—were largely ignored.”
Arnade’s class does not think much of McDonald’s or religion, especially low-church evangelical Protestantism. But they are redoubts in back-row America. McDonalds is not just a source of cheap food, it provides a gathering place and shelter for many. The fast-food chain also offers a tableau of the divisions in the back row. While the term is useful for Arnade, it encompasses a heterogeneous group.
There are those in the back row, and then there are those who have dropped out or been kicked out. So McDonald’s employees try to keep the bathrooms from becoming ad hoc laundromats, showers, and drug dens, and the blue-collar retirees meeting each morning for coffee and conversation are not in the same category as the homeless.
These distinctions matter, but there is a place they can be put aside—before the throne of God. Arnade did not intend to examine religion in his project. Like most of his peers, he saw religion “as an old, irrational thing that limited and repressed people—and often outright oppressed them,” and he is still an agnostic, albeit an apparently humbler one. But, as with McDonald’s, he kept finding himself in churches, because that was where the people he walked to talk to were.
For those at the very bottom, belief in God was essential to sustain themselves. Religion was more than a psychological comfort, however. The front row offered those at the bottom “sterile institutions that chew them up and spit them right back out.” In contrast, the small churches that minister to them “are the only places on the streets that regularly treat them like humans … The preachers and congregants inside may preach to them, even judge their past decisions, but they don’t look down on them.”
These churches are not endlessly tolerant, but they are forgiving: “There are rules to follow if you join, but… You are welcome as long as you try.” They provide support (spiritual, material, and relational) that keeps some in the back row from hitting bottom, and they offer those at the bottom a way up and out. Arnade relates that the “few success stories told on the streets are of relatives, friends, or spouses who found God, got with the discipline and order of a church, and moved away.” Hallelujah.
For those trying to escape cycles of prostitution, drugs, and homelessness, getting God and getting away is lifesaving. For some pundits and policymakers, this gospel of U-Haul is the solution for everyone left behind in back row America. But although it is sometimes necessary to move for a better life, moving is often damaging.
Arnade observes that for many, it “would mean destroying their identity and breaking their support system of family and friends. Their happiness would be reduced. The few good things they have going for them, things that don’t cost money, would disappear.”
The Gospel of U-Haul
Many leave anyway, and those who remain are disproportionately the aged, the infirm, the addicted, and those caring for them. Arnade tells of those who stay behind to care for family, rather than striking out on their own to earn more. This violates the gospel of U-Haul, but it may fulfill the commands of another, older gospel, which does not tell us to forsake our family for the sake of the GDP.
Regarding the GDP, it turns out that a rising tide does not lift all boats; some are capsized and sink. It should not require extraordinary virtue to pursue a life of marriage, family, church, and community while laboring honestly for wages sufficient to support these modest ambitions. But this ordinary life has become much harder for many across our country. Although much of the pain in back row America is self-inflicted, cultural and economic forces have played a part in making drugs, disability, and instability the default for too many.
Those who preach in back row America should not abandon a message of personal responsibility. But by the same token, those in the front row should reflect on their responsibility, for they have played a part in the ills that have befallen many American communities.
Thus, Arnade indicts his own class for their failures—both in what they have done and in what they have failed to do. He writes that “Our metrics for success became how high the stock market got, how large the profits were, how efficient the company was. If communities, towns, and people, suffered in this, it was all for the greater good in the name of progress.” In the long run, everyone would be better off.
However, those in the back row were “left with a world where their sense of home and family and community won’t get them anywhere, won’t pay the bills. And with a world where their jobs are disappearing.”
This was due in large part to policies instituted by a bipartisan consensus of the front row. As Arnade puts it, we “gave my old world, Wall Street, whatever it wanted, and what it really wanted was to lower labor costs.” Other losses followed job losses, as cities, communities, and families crumbled and broke in the cause of economic efficiency.
These did not show up on corporate spreadsheets, but they showed up elsewhere, from overdoses to fatherless children. Global corporations have not born the costs of their pursuit of cheap labor—those too were outsourced, this time from Wall Street to back row America.
Arnade challenges narratives of both the left and the right (the chapter on racism may have something to upset almost everyone). He notes that it may help explain how we got Trump, but it is not an apology for the president, or even primarily a political book.
A Sermon in Prose and Photographs
What this volume aims to do is remind the rest of us of those who have been left behind in America. It humanizes the people we have ignored and makes us look at the places they live, when we might prefer to fly over or drive through. Arnade uses interviews, stories, and pictures to show us those we tend to look away from and walk past.
However, there are two unfortunate omissions. First, are the children. For obvious reasons, he focused on interviewing adults, so children tend, at most, to be seen but not heard from in this book. There are glimpses of abuse and neglect repeating across generations, but we do not see the full enormity that afflicts children at the bottom, often at the hands of their parents.
The second is that Arnade neglects the middle rows. As a matter of reporting, keeping the middle to the periphery of the book is fine—Middle America may be less compelling than back row America or drop-out America, and it probably needs less humanizing. But it should have been included when Arnade turned to broader narratives and diagnoses. Life from rural Oregon to the heart of West Virginia ain’t all back row. There is a lot of middle in America, and it must be included in discussing relations between the back row and the front.
A welcome omission is that Arnade avoids offering a comprehensive solution or system to address the problems he reports. This humility becomes him, and some of the problems he illuminates can only be mitigated, not solved. The poor will be with us always, but require persistent charity and kindness. It is not an excuse to dismiss and ignore them, or to strip them of dignity even while managing them through social services.
Those in the front row will be important to ameliorating the problems Arnade describes. They hold outsized power, after all. But they should begin their efforts by reflecting on the people in the back row, rather than looking away while burbling about the ultimate, ineffable benefits of creative destruction, or offering social programs that mostly keep the poor out of sight and out of mind.
That is what this book, this sermon in prose and photographs, is for. It is sometimes uncomfortable because it pricks the conscience of the reader and calls to mind our sins. Good. That is how repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation begin.