Reflecting on Chris Arnade’s “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America”

When you’re up against evil, whether the mysterious efforts of demons or all-too-explainable effect of drugs, the front row’s world of science, education, and smart arguments doesn’t do much for you.

Chris Arnade

Just a couple weeks ago I was reading The Pillar newsletter I have delivered to my inbox every Tuesday and Friday (a very good publication, I highly recommend subscribing to it for free on Substack here) and one email I saw that a man named Chris Arnade was walking across cities in America to document everyday experiences and scenes. Since I became very interested in urban studies over the summer, and this semester am actually taking a class on that subject for my major, I was curious. I had never heard of him before, but his work seemed very interesting. I looked at his Twitter and Substack and it was right up my alley. I noticed he had written a book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Backrow America. Here is part of the description of the book on Amazon:

After abandoning his Wall Street career, Chris Arnade decided to document poverty and addiction in the Bronx. He began interviewing, photographing, and becoming close friends with homeless addicts, and spent hours in drug dens and McDonald’s. Then he started driving across America to see how the rest of the country compared. He found the same types of stories everywhere, across lines of race, ethnicity, religion, and geography. 

The people he got to know, from Alabama and California to Maine and Nevada, gave Arnade a new respect for the dignity and resilience of what he calls America’s Back Row–those who lack the credentials and advantages of the so-called meritocratic upper class. The strivers in the Front Row, with their advanced degrees and upward mobility, see the Back Row’s values as worthless. They scorn anyone who stays in a dying town or city as foolish, and mock anyone who clings to religion or tradition as naïve.

I was intrigued, and added the book to my cart along with some others, such as Hillbilly Elegy and Alienated America. About a week and a half went by and finally they arrived. I did not expect to read any of them immediately, as I am already reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. However, I like to briefly flip through the books I buy to see what I can look forward to. I started reading the first pages of Dignity and was pulled in immediately. Before I knew it, I had been reading for an hour and was a hundred pages in. This book is addicting, at least to me. I have been looking for some real, down to earth, brutally honest writing on some of the social and economic ills in society today, especially concerning the uneducated and the poor. I was especially interested in hearing their stories and their perspective.

Frankly, I was and am tired of reading papers and articles written about the subject by people who keep as far away from the population they write about as possible. The norm for this subject is that the educated and generally wealthy “front row”, as Arnade calls them, analyze and talk about the “back row” from afar, never having experienced their conditions up close and never having associated with those people in their lives. They speak on it in such an academic and scientific manner that it comes across as satire sometimes. As if writing pretentious pieces and prescriptions is ever going to make a change or help us to truly understand their plight. Chris Arnade, however, goes directly to the people on their own terms and on their own turf. He visits McDonald’s most frequently because, as he points out, the McDonald’s is often the de facto community center and public space for these areas. It has free wi-fi, bathrooms, seating, and allows people to escape the weather. It is where the back row gathers and where the people are, not the civic centers or non-profits.

The stories he tells are heart-wrenching. Homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, faith, family, trauma, and racism. I teared up numerous times. These are real people, with real feelings and real experiences. The hardships they go through I simply cannot imagine. I believe it is often easy for us to look at the drug addicted, the homeless, the prostitute and the like, and place a great amount of blame on them, to cast them as being undesirable failures in society. That, or we look at them as a scientific problem that can and should be solved with simple policy equations. Just build some public housing here or put a park there; fund a drug rehabilitation center or increase affirmative action. Far less often do we go to these people and ask them about their situation or try to understand their complex lives. Often they come from broken families, lost their job or never found one, went through great suffering, became addicted to drugs or got caught up in prostitution, and have been abandoned by society at large. While we may pay lip service to them and their plight from time to time, they still slip through the cracks and our system forgets them.

Sonya, Bronx, New York, February 2013. Photo: Chris Arnade

Then there is the environmental aspect of the stories. The people in Arnade’s book live in desolated communities, towns, and neighborhoods. Boarded up houses, empty parking lots, overgrown sidewalks, pothole-ridden roads, abandoned strip malls, and empty main streets. The decline, according to the residents, usually started when the jobs left. The story in Dignity goes something like this: there was once a thriving working class community with often times difficulty but good paying jobs that one could support a family on. At some point, the jobs began to leave town, either relocating overseas or to another place. People lost their jobs, bills got harder to pay, those who could afford to leave and who had the mobility to leave did, and small businesses could not sustain themselves any more. Eventually the town became a hollow shell of its former self. The drugs, prostitution, and poverty set in. Those who stayed do what they can to get by, but look back at the past circumstances with longing.

And yet, there is a sense of hope. Despite the hardships, people manage to make something of their lives. They stay and build resilient communities built on mutual trust and support. They put their families above themselves, caring for sick loved ones or taking jobs instead of going off to college. To them, the failing and hollow town or neighborhood is still home. Their attachment to it goes beyond mere material or financial ties. In many ways, they have stronger and tighter communities despite their poverty. I bet that the people of Hunt’s Point probably have a better sense of place and community than most suburbanites with their McMansions and tidy yards on a cookie-cutter cul-de-sac. They also have their faith.

One of the most touching parts of the book to me was the chapter on religion. Bible studies in McDonald’s, small churches in repurposed strip malls, belief in evil and the Divine and in a profound God who loves even the homeless heroin addict. Another detail that struck me is that, in most cases where someone got clean and got out of their poor situation, it was because they found God and found a faith community.

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: “Princess met a decent man who was dedicated to the Scripture. She got straight, got God, and last we heard was on a farm upstate.” “Necee went to her grandmother’s and found God, and she now has her one-year chip.”

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America

When I read about the faith of poor prostitutes and drug addicts in America’s most marginalized communities, I made an immediate connection to what we see in the Gospels. How many times do we act like the Pharisees, ready to condemn the sinner and boast about our own righteousness? “Well sure, I am a sinner, but I am not that kind of sinner” we say. Downplaying our own fallen nature and our own numerous faults, we are quick to point out the failures of our brothers and sisters, often without ever having listened to them or taken the time to understand their plight. Rather than look into the complex issues surrounding drug addiction, the background of the people who struggle with it, and the environment they live in, we waive them off as ignorant and weak-willed, unable to overcome such an obvious evil (as if they believe drugs are good or as if they like being addicted). Similarly, we like to talk about prostitutes as if they must be the most idiotic women in the world. How on earth could you do that? Isn’t it so clearly wrong? Don’t you have any self-respect? Nevermind the fact that they often started at a very young age, even an illegal age, either coerced into it or because they saw it as the only way out of a dire situation. And once they are in, it’s difficult to get out. This is not to say the Church or Christians should not recognize the evil and the sin in these things, but rather that we have failed to minister to these people and treat them with the dignity they deserve. We have failed to live as Christ did. Pope Francis put it well in a homily he gave on February 15th, 2015, saying:

…for Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family! And this is scandalous to some people! Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal!  He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp.

Pope Francis

Dignity also led me to reflect on another issue I see with my own Catholic Church especially. Why are we not putting more money, more time, more energy, and more resources into evangelization, ministry, and charity? Now, I know that some will immediately get defensive about this and say “John don’t you know that the Catholic Church is the biggest charitable organization in the world” or “Haven’t you seen the work X group of religious brothers or sisters are doing?” Neither of these things are wrong, nor do I wish to diminish the value of Catholic efforts. Nevertheless, at least in the United States and the dioceses that I am in throughout the year, I do not see a great effort to go out and preach the Gospel message to those who need to hear it. Perhaps we think no one will listen or that our resources are better spent on internal matters. Yet, when I look around, I see a world yearning for God, yearning for something more in their lives. They feel dejected and lost. They do not know what their meaning is, or what life is for. I see a world of pain and suffering. People losing their jobs, their children, their parents, their homes. They struggle with illnesses both physical and mental. They struggle with addiction. They sin. They are lost. These are exactly the people that need Jesus in their lives. These are the people we are called to go out and proclaim to the good news to. But how much is the Church reaching out to these people, directly, and preaching to them? Are parishes or dioceses taking ambitious steps to reach the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, the ill, the prisoner, the sinner? Are we spreading the light of the Gospel in the world, or are we hiding it away within the walls of our churches?

Jesus Preaching by Tissot

This reflection has obviously gone past a mere analysis of the book and its immediate subject, but when reading it, as a Catholic, my thoughts were “this is who the Church needs to be going to, these neighborhoods and these groups of people are where the message needs to be proclaimed.” I see failure of our political system and failure of the prevailing ideologies. I see the degradation of community, of religion, of the family, and of work. I see failure of the Church to do what it has been called to do. But I also see opportunity. I see a world that desperately needs love, faith, hope, and charity. I see a society that longs for more than the consumerist, materialist world we currently live in. I just hope that the Church is able to recognize this and do a better job at spreading the Gospel, making disciples, and providing an alternative to the world as it is called to do.

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