Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America

by Chris Arnade


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"A profound book.... It will break your heart but also leave you with hope." —J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy

"[A] deeply empathetic book." —The Economist

With stark photo essays and unforgettable true stories, Chris Arnade cuts through "expert" pontification on inequality, addiction, and poverty to allow those who have been left behind to define themselves on their own terms.

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.

As Takeesha, a woman in the Bronx, told Arnade, she wants to be seen she sees herself: "a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God." This book is his attempt to help the rest of us truly see, hear, and respect millions of people who've been left behind.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525534730
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/04/2019
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 84,680
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Chris Arnade is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Atlantic, Guardian, Washington Post, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal among many others. He has a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University and worked for twenty years as a trader at an elite Wall Street bank before leaving in 2012 to document addiction in the Bronx.

Read an Excerpt

I first walked into the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx be­cause I was told not to. I was told it was too dangerous, too poor, and that I was too white. I was told “nobody goes there for any­thing other than drugs and prostitutes.” The people directly telling me this were my colleagues (other bankers), my neighbors (other wealthy Brooklynites), and my friends (other academics). All, like me, success­ful, well-educated people who had opinions on the Bronx but had never really been there.
It was 2011, and I was in my eighteenth year as a Wall Street bond trader. My workdays were spent sitting behind a wall of computers, gambling on flashing numbers, in a downtown Manhattan trading floor filled with hundreds of others doing exactly the same thing. My home life was spent in a large Brooklyn apartment, in a neighborhood filled with other successful people.
I wasn’t in the mood for listening to anyone, especially other bank­ers, other academics, and the educated experts who were my neighbors. I hadn’t been for a few years. In 2008, the financial crisis had consumed the country and my life, sending the company I worked for, Citibank, into a spiral stopped only by a government bailout. I had just seen where our—my own included—hubris had taken us and what it had cost the country. Not that it had actually cost us bankers, or my neighbors, much of anything.
I had always taken long walks, sometimes as long as fifteen miles, to explore and reduce stress, but now the walks began to evolve. Rather than walk with some plan to walk the entire length of Broadway, or along the length of a subway line, I started walking the less seen parts of New York City, the parts people claimed were unsafe or uninteresting, walking with no goal other than eventually getting home. Along the walk I talked to whoever talked to me, and I let their suggestions, not my instincts and maps, navigate me. I also used my camera to take por­traits of those I met, and I became more and more drawn to the stories people inevitably wanted to share about their life.
The walks, the portraits, the stories I heard, the places they took me, became a process of learning in a different kind of way. Not from text­books, or statistics, or spreadsheets, or PowerPoint presentations, or classrooms, or speeches, or documentaries—but from people.
What I started seeing, and learning, was just 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.

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Introduction 1

New York City 19

1 If You Want to Understand the Country, Visit McDonald's 37

McDonald's 63

2 Drugs 79

3 God Filled My Emptiness 99

Coping 125

4 This Is My Home 143

Desolation 169

5 Racism 189

6 Respect, Recklessness, and Rebellion 229

Dignity 255

Conclusion 275

About the Author 287

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