Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, by Chris Arnade, may not be the most well-crafted book I ever read, but it made a huge impact on me, and I am very grateful to have had the chance to read it. It helped me understand some of the issues in Cameron as well as why some of the things the movers and shakers are trying don’t really work.
I have a suspicion that my friends, family, and coworkers will be very glad when I write up this review, so I’ll stop summarizing the book and explaining what it says. I’m just so glad that I had some of my prejudices and misconceptions ripped away and have at least a bit more understanding of a subset of American society that I once had some strong biases against: the people in small towns or impoverished neighborhoods.
So, all about Dignity
Arnade calls people like me “front row people,” which are people who by luck of their birth have had all the opportunities available to be able to do what counts as “success” in the US: advanced degrees, home ownership, a job that uses the brain, not the body to earn a living. They have a front row seat at all the possible things the society values. He calls people who live in towns where all the employers are gone, where many people use drugs or alcohol to get through the day, and who use their bodies to work, when there is work, back row people. Always having trouble getting ahead, behind on opportunities, etc. *
It impressed me that Arnade, who was a Wall Street stockbroker, and therefore way in the front row, got curious about the lives of people near him who didn’t have the same opportunities he did. He spent three years getting to know a community in Brooklyn, then visited places across the US to learn how they get where they are and why they stay.
His findings backed up some of my instincts, and showed me exactly where my viewpoint of the poor and hopeless has been skewed by my viewpoint as a privileged person. I’d heard too many times that poor people just don’t try hard enough, or if they wanted a job so badly, they should just move somewhere with jobs…and more.
We have implemented policies that focus narrowly on one value of meaning: the material. page 283.
I found out that there are things that keep people where they are, including their strong sense of community (one reason they don’t just pick up and move), lack of education (including opportunity for good education and ability to learn), and mental health issues (surprise, poor people are often depressed and self medicate). I found out that most of the people Arnade talked to aren’t motivated by money or profit, which is the priority of the larger society. A sense of belonging is more important, and that CAN be found in the crack house or tenement.
By the time I got through the book, I was able to see things through the eyes of sex workers, drug addicts, people who spend most of their days in McDonalds, and members of small rural churches (where people are accepted just as they are). I can see how tired they are of being judged and put down. I can see how they feel ignored and unseen.
I realize that well meaning people like me make a lot of decisions and spend a lot of money on programs without ever actually asking people what they need, finding out what they think, or learning what’s important to them. No wonder the people in the book avoid nonprofit do-gooder agencies like a plague.
This book is not perfect, and there are places where the author is quite obviously just expressing an opinion with no data to back it up, but the opinions are coming from spending time with actual people. But, as he points out:
We have removed ourselves physically and in spirit, and when we do look back, it is through papers and books filled with data. We study poverty and those we left behind with spreadsheets and statistics, believing we are well intentioned, believing we are really valuing them. page 282
Ouch. That seems true. Arnade also repeats himself many times, but that may well be because he knows what he is saying will be hard for well-meaning front-row people to swallow. I probably needed to read some of his assertions repeatedly, myself. A final quote:
We have created a society that is damningly unequal, not just economically but socially. We have said that education is the way out of pain and the way to success, implying that those who don’t make it our or dumb, or lazy, or stupid… This has ensured that all those at the bottom, educationally and economically…are guaranteed to feel excluded, rejected, and most of all, humiliated. page 284.
Looking at things this way, I sure can see how drugs could seem like a good choice. Now, how can we help? Should we try? It seems like my ignorant instincts aren’t helpful. Throwing money at problems isn’t helpful. Maybe listening with respect to others and asking THEM what they need would be a start, and would certainly help provide the dignity we all deserve.
As for Cameron
I thought a lot about Cameron, Texas as I was reading this book, which went on and on about dying downtowns, streets full of collapsing houses, and other things I see. But, I think there IS a difference in my adopted small town. For one, the town still has educated people, businesses, and people who care. What I hope is that we can work to create a town with factory or other semi-skilled jobs for people who want them and aren’t highly educated, as well as trendy places for tourists and high-tech businesses.
I want to live in a thriving community with a place for everyone, rich or poor, where we all have dignity and communicate with each other. Somehow, I think we have a chance in Cameron. I really do.
*I guess I came from “middle row” people, the ones who, back in the 60s and 70s, could expect their children to have more opportunities than they did. My parents weren’t college educated, but they could raise and house a family on their income. That is much harder to do today.