How To Start Restoring Dignity To ‘Back Row America’ By Nathanael Blake for The Federalist
After years of working on Wall Street, Chris Arnade’s remarkable new book caused him to venture beyond his affluent circumstances and reassess everything he thought about poverty and religion.
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.