Chris Arnade thinks American society is a bit like a classroom. With a physics PhD, a successful Wall Street career and a family home in Brooklyn, he was one of the ones with a seat in the front row. Arnade, his neighbours and his colleagues “were at the top of our class, we went to the top colleges and top graduate schools, and we landed top jobs in the top law firms, banks, universities, media companies, tech companies, and so on”.
Like most people in the front row, Arnade knew he was lucky, but in 2011 he began to realise that the lives of the people at the very back of the classroom weren’t just different; they might as well live in another world altogether.
The start of this realisation was a walk to Hunt’s Point, a hard-up part of the Bronx, a hard-up borough of New York City. Increasingly uninterested in, and disillusioned by, his day job as a bond trader, he went there in spite of—or rather, because of—all the warnings: “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.’”
What he found there surprised him. Yes, there was desperation, drugs, sex work and addiction. Three years of visiting Hunt’s Point was “three years of seeing just how messy life really is. How filled with pain, injustice, ambiguity, and problems too big for any one policy to address. It was also three years of seeing how resilient people can be, how community can thrive anywhere, even amid pain and poverty. Most of all I ended up finding what is often overlooked in stigmatised neighbourhoods: dignity.”
Arnade’s trips to Hunt’s Point were the start of a much longer journey that would see him leave his Wall Street job, pick up his camera and a notebook and, over several years, drive more than 150,000 miles across America to try to understand life in the back row. It is a journey that ends with Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, a book of photographs and reporting by Arnade that is remarkable for its honesty, humility and empathy.
Some of these vignettes seem from a different time and place entirely to 21st-century America. On the outskirts of Portsmouth, Ohio, Arnade comes across “two dirty kids” in
“a shopping cart filled with cans, children’s toys, and blankets smelling of piss. A man leans against the cart, and the two-year-old girl and three-year-old boy stare at me with blank expressions.” The man, James, tells Arnade that they’ve been homeless for a year and a half and are living in a shed behind the house of an old friend. Arnade asks him if he and his girlfriend use drugs.
“I used to, both of us did.”
“Do you still use?”
“No, I don’t. Well, only Suboxone. I buy it from the street since I don’t have a prescription.”
“Anybody mess with you out here? Police? Social services?”
“A minister comes by to try and help us,” James says. “Otherwise nobody has made much of a fuss.”
One of the things that unites back-row America, whether in the Bronx or Milwaukee, Selma or Reno, is McDonald’s. The fast-food franchise functions as a de facto community centre in parts of the country where there are few alternatives.
McDonald’s, Arnade explains, is a central part of life for those on the margins: “Without a stable home, they needed clean water, a place to charge a phone, a place to get free wi-fi. McDonald’s had all of those, and it also had good cheap food.”
Alternatives are dismissed out of hand: “When I asked why not the nonprofits or the public parks, the answer would be some variation of ‘what is that?’ or ‘They always telling you what to do.’ The nonprofits came with lots of rules and lectures about behaviour, with quiet or not-so-quiet judgment.”
As well as fast food, there is faith. “The tragedy of the streets means few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control,” writes Arnade. “You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know.”
In Bakersfield, California, Arnade heads to a small white wooden church. There is no minister. Instead, the congregation take turns preaching, reading and singing. A mechanic in his overalls preaches for nearly an hour. A recovering meth addict weeps, telling the room: “I have had it rough, but with you, and the Lord, I will keep my head high.” She tells Arnade that she has been off drugs for just one week. Outside, Josh and Jenny smoke and wait for a lift to take them on their long journey home. They have nothing beyond their children and their faith in Jesus Christ, they say.
Dignity is, unavoidably, a political book. Much of Arnade’s reporting is from ground zero for the decline in heavy industry and manufacturing and America’s gruesome opioid epidemic. It is all given heightened relevance by the coincidence of Arande’s reporting with the rise of Donald Trump. But only very rarely is politics allowed to occupy centre-stage. “This book is not a book about ‘how we got Trump,’” insists Arnade, “though learning to see the country differently may help answer questions about the 2016 election. Rather, it’s a book about reconsidering what is valuable, about honouring aspects of life that cannot be measured, and about an attempt to listen and look with humility.”
And for the back-row Americans that Arnade talks to, whether black or white, urban or rural, young or old, the prevailing political stance is indifference.
Arnade goes to Cleveland while the city is hosting the GOP convention at which Trump receives the presidential nomination. In a poor and overwhelmingly black part of town, the only evidence of the political history being made around the corner is the sound of helicopters. The neighbourhood is full of posters from the Revolutionary Communist Party that read “America Was NEVER Great! We Need to OVERTHROW This System”. No one knows who put them up and no one is especially interested in the message. At a junction, two white men wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts—the only white men in the neighbourhood beyond the police, according to Arnade—try to sell “FUCK TRUMP” and “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” shirts to drivers waiting at the traffic lights. Everyone ignores them.
And yet, when Arnade does talk about politics, he does so with insight earned by the mileage he clocked up.
The marginalised poor, pro- or anti-Trump, feel humiliated by a system that emphasises meritocracy without necessarily delivering on that promise, he argues: “People respond to humiliation in different ways, but the most common response is to find a source of pride whether possible, even if that means in places the status quo doesn’t approve of. It means trying to find a community or activity that values them. For those in the back row, that means a place that doesn’t demand credentials.”
No one cares about your past in a crack house or a church. Racial identity is another source of community that requires “no credentials beyond being born”.
It is important not to overstate the case—and Arnade doesn’t. America’s white working class is only part of the Trump story. After all, just a third of voters from households with income of less than the national median of around $50,000 voted for Trump in 2016.
Given the sensitivity with which Arnade has photographed and listened to back-row America, he is inevitably asked what should be done. His first answer is “I don’t know.” That is a reasonable response. Reading Dignity it is obvious that what is needed is something far deeper than a straightforward set of government policies. Which is why Arnade’s only concrete proposal is “We all need to listen to each other more.” It is, as he admits, a “wishy-washy” idea given the serious problems he has documented.
But he is surely right when he says that those in America’s front row have “removed ourselves physically and in spirit, and when we do look back, it is through papers and books filled with data.” The physical and emotional energy Arnade has put into Dignity is a much-needed reminder of the power of listening. And in that, at least, there is some hope.
“Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America”, by Chris Arnade, is published by Sentinel, £25.
All photographs ©Chris Arnade.