In 2011, a Wall Street banker became curious about the lives of people unlike him. So he began walking into parts of New York City that people told him to avoid because “nobody goes there for anything other than drugs and prostitutes.” There, he talked to whoever talked to him, photographed them, and listened. A couple of years later, he forsook his Wall Street job so he could drive his minivan all the over the country doing the same thing, determining where to stop by one rule: go to the places that everybody else said he shouldn’t visit.
Now, Chris Arnade has written Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, a book that documents through photos and stories the people whom America’s “front row” of college-educated experts typically ignore. The result is a beautiful book that should become an American classic. The photos are stunning (I kept skipping ahead to them), and the people he captures are mesmerizing.
The overwhelming strength of Dignity is its focus on and respectful curiosity about human beings who are almost always stigmatized. It, therefore, uncovers realities that are typically missed because we either don’t know—or we’ve decided that we already know what we need to know and move on.
Take McDonald’s. Like most people on the front row, I despise McDonald’s. I hate their food and mostly associate them with their bathrooms: gross. I also think of them as the emblem of a fast-food chain ripping workers off—remember the budgets with $0 for food and heating they recommended for their own employees? Sure, I have a friend who works there who raves about the community she found among fellow employees, and I have noticed the old-timers shooting the breeze. But I’ve never dwelt on the matter, preferring my front-row take informed mainly by Netflix documentaries and my ideology of localism. But post-Dignity, my image of McDonald's is of bastions of civil society, little platoons of men and women gathering to gossip, study the Bible, talk politics—or politely decline the activist handing out Revolutionary Communist Party fliers.
Or take Pentecostal churches. Most front-row people, including many front-row religious conservatives, harbor mainly contempt for Pentecostal churches and their ilk. “Bad religion,” we scoff or jeer at the TV ministers and their million-dollar jets and prosperity-gospel messages we associate with those churches. But Arnade captures something deeply authentic in these churches and—dare I say it?—fundamentally Christian.
In Prestonburg, Kentucky, with a population of 3,500 but two dozen churches, Arnade visits The House of Worship, a small church held in an old home. Josh, who receives a disability check for seizures, preaches about how God saved him. “I used to drink all the time until I discovered the Lord. Ain’t never had a buzz like Jesus Christ,” he testifies. A woman struggling with meth addiction but one-week sober wipes tears away, saying “I have had it rough, but with you, and the Lord, I will keep my head high.” At the end of the service, everyone hugs and shakes hands—and goes outside for a smoke.
These are people who profoundly understand their own limitations and need for grace—and for each other.
As Arnade says of his visit to the Spanish service of the Full Gospel Lighthouse in Bakersfield, California (where a pamphlet announces, “YOU can be DEBT FREE!”), he'd been to enough churches that he knew he’d be asked if he was saved. “I also knew I would be warmly welcomed,” Arnade says, “despite clearly looking like an outsider. I had never not been, not when I was the only white person (often), not when I was the only one dressed in jeans (once), and not when I was the only man with long unkempt hair (a few times).”
“Without God, I would be lost,” says a Hispanic woman at that small service. “I wouldn’t have peace.”
Arnade finds the same deep faith on the streets, among the addicted, the prostitutes, and the homeless.
“When I walked into Hunts Point,” Arnade explains of his first ventures into New York’s poor neighborhoods, “I expected that the people there, those most impacted by the cold ruthlessness that our world can dish out, would share my atheism. Instead, I found a strong belief in the supernatural and faith manifested in almost every form, mostly as a belief in the Bible.”
We see it in Shelly, a transgender, homeless woman who always carries a rosary. We see it in Jerry who drives every week to a detox clinic for his weekly supply of Suboxone, and who says, “I had never felt worthy before of being saved. I was too dumb. Now I understand I am worthy of the Lord.”
“Realities are greater than ideas,” Pope Francis likes to say. Dignity is a long and loving look at realities that are hidden from many of us.
Whereas the front row, from their distance, emphasizes the realities of isolation and self-harm and destruction in drugs, the reality is there is also community and faith and a way to numb pain.
Where the front row is worried either by the decline of religious attendance (if you think religion is a force for good) or the flourishing of judgmental irrationality (if you think it’s bad), the reality is humility and a nonjudgmental embrace of God and of the broken.
Where the front row inveighs against the idea that people who stay in economically struggling towns are lazy and lack ambition, the reality is a devotion to family and love of home.
Where there abound ideas of dysfunction and disorder, yes the reality is dysfunction and disorder (as the stunning photographs show) —but just as real is the assertion and persistence of dignity.
Except in one place. Where the front row is depressed by the idea of all-consuming racism among back-row whites, Arnade is also depressed by the idea of all-consuming racism among back-row whites. More precisely, Arnade says that poor whites who support Trump are embracing “the non-credentialed” form of community in racial identity, “providing a community that doesn’t require any credentials beyond being born. Like drugs, it is rightly stigmatized, but also like drugs, it can appeal to the desperate.”
It’s an interesting idea and maybe one grounded in reality. But no back-row white actually says that to Arnade (or at least no person he quotes does). To the contrary, the disabled man in Prestonburg, Kentucky, insists that he waves the Confederate flag because he loves fishing and hunting. The man at the Cleveland bar disdains “free-loaders” but insists that he is no racist—his ex-wife was one, he says, and he has hired blacks.
The method of Dignity is just as valuable as the content. Most of us can’t drive around the country in an old minivan like Arnade, visiting McDonald’s, Pentecostal churches, and poor neighborhoods, but we can do smaller things.
It’s true that one of the most depressing parts of the book is the young mother who makes a racist remark when she sees her daughter delightfully playing with the black child of the refugee. Many readers will be led to the conclusion that the racism of that young mother is emblematic of the racism of most other back-row whites.
Here, there is no redemptive layer to the story, just a slightly sophisticated retelling of a story that we’ve heard a thousand times by coastal progressives in the Trump era: working-class whites are angry and frustrated because their factories have closed down, and in the void, they are finding solace and meaning in their racial identity.
If there is no redemptive layer to the story here, we shouldn’t make one up. But I don’t think we have to make anything up; we just have to extend the project that Arnade admirably embarks upon: listen to people and take them seriously.
Of course, Arnade does take seriously the voices of all the African Americans he met on Milwaukee’s North Side, who talk about leaving the racism and cotton fields of Mississippi in the 1950s for the factory jobs of Milwaukee, expecting more tolerance but finding the same racism in more sophisticated form. Person after person recounts some version of this story to Arnade, and he rightly listens and takes them seriously.
But don’t we owe the same courtesy to back-row whites in rural Appalachia? Shouldn’t we also take their declarations seriously and see where they lead? If we do, I think we’ll be surprised by a multiracial solidarity waiting to be summoned.
Because just as with drugs, religion, and home, there is another reality and possibility for redemption with race. I suspect most back-row whites, whatever their actual practices and the structures in which they are embedded, really don’t want to be racist and even yearn for solidarity and a more perfect union that includes many races.
Arnade doubtless heard the sentiment a thousand times from back-row whites in his travels. I’ve heard it many times in my own work interviewing working-class whites and as a co-founder of Better Angels, which brings together conservatives and liberals in alliances to work together. My friend Greg, a former cop and asphalt technician, is a back-row white that Arnade could have found at the Waynesville, Ohio, McDonald’s, probably handing Arnade a flyer about an event aimed at bringing politically odd pairs together.
When Greg, a Trump supporter, first attended a Better Angels workshop a couple of months after Trump’s election, he basically suspected that all Muslims were terrorists waiting to happen. There, he met Kouhyar, an Iranian immigrant with a Muslim background, who basically suspected that all Trump supporters were people he should cut out of his life. Today, Kouhyar and Greg are friends and co-chairs of an Ohio Better Angels Alliance The lesson for me is that we often discover surprising grace and decency when we do what Arnade concludes by suggesting we do: really listen to each other.
This leads me to my final observation: the method of Dignity is just as valuable as the content. Most of us can’t drive around the country in an old minivan like Arnade, visiting McDonald’s and Pentecostal churches and poor neighborhoods, but we can do smaller things. For instance, the other night my wife Amber and I attended Mass in Spanish at a local Catholic church. Regrettably, I don’t know one person who is a Hispanic immigrant. The result, I fear, is a kind of knowledge about immigration informed mainly by ideas and arguments, less by people’s stories. I’d like to change that, and attending a Mass in Spanish only 15 minutes away helped me realized I could do that without, say, traveling to the border.
This is the power of Dignity: you are transported to a reality beyond stereotype and you develop a curiosity about people’s stories. This is why every single person in front-row America should read Dignity: it will help you to love your neighbor; it may also birth new ideas that could actually make a difference.
My own hope is that Dignity helps break up the monopolistic cult of the college-educated and replaces it with a cultural pluralism that celebrates working-class dignity: you can live in a small house, work a non-white-collar job, be born and die in the same neighborhood—and be rightly proud of your life (maybe even earn a good living). Most accounts about poor and working-class America assume that the way to help is to enable them to get out of their neighborhoods and to ascend the educational and class ladder. But, as Arnade points out, those prescriptions fail to account for the actual values and preferences of many poor and working-class people. It also misses the non-credentialed values of family, faith, and community.
“Why have you stayed here?” Arnade asks Frank in a McDonald's in Amarillo, Texas.
“Too many ties here,” he responds, “and it as good a place as you can find.”
In Dignity, the essential message that America’s back row conveys to America’s front row is that there are goods and ties beyond credentials and degrees and economic growth. It is a message we should all heed.
David Lapp is a co-founder of Better Angels and a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Along with his wife, Amber, David serves as co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.
*Photo credit: Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade, in agreement with Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © Chris Arnade, 2019: pg. 256.