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Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  1,722 ratings  ·  306 reviews
Widely acclaimed photographer and writer Chris Arnade shines new light on America's poor, drug-addicted, and forgotten--both urban and rural, blue state and red state--and indicts the elitists who've left them behind.

Like Jacob Riis in the 1890s, Walker Evans in the 1930s, or Michael Harrington in the 1960s, Chris Arnade bares the reality of our current class divide in sta
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published June 4th 2019 by Sentinel
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Phil Greaney
Jun 07, 2019 rated it liked it
I'm not entirely sure about how I feel about this book, the project and its approach.

I find it relatively easy to admire Arnade and his ostensible intention: to leave his job and the 'front row' world he occupies, immerse himself in the world and people from the 'back row', listen, learn and try to understand and to share what he learns in photographs and a relatively short series of discussions on themes like coping, drugs and death. It appears to come from a place of heart-felt, honest, direct
Charles Haywood
Jul 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Last year, I went to the State Fair, and simply sat and watched the people pass by. The vast majority were lower class, and looked it. I tried, for a change, to ignore the externals and imagine myself conversing with individuals with whom, to an outside observer, I have nothing in common. Chris Arnade wrote "Dignity" to document a similar exercise, though one far more in-depth. He travelled the country, talking to many people from the lower classes, what he calls the “back row.” Then he wrote up ...more
Jun 10, 2019 rated it it was ok
For a book that purports to explore the "unheralded" America that is ignored by the media, it relegates these people to the background. Instead, in every chapter it is the author who is center-stage.

I was surprised that the book is mostly about the author's own reactions to the people he met, and that the book isn't so much about "Back Row America" so much as it is about the author's reactions to that America.

The author's commentary detracts from whatever power his photographs and interviews w
Jun 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I grew up pretty poor in the rural south. my half sister's dad (not my father) stole our only vcr for crack when I was young, we lived in a trailer in one of the poorer counties in one of the poorer states in the union and when I go back home there's a striking realization that everyone in my family that is home is hurting in some way. I give you this preface to give you the context for the rest of this review.

I hated hillbilly elegy and most wealthy educated elitist who try to write novels or t
Amy Bruestle
Sep 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book was given to me after winning though a giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

I liked this book a lot. Being a recovering addict myself, i could closely identify with the people in this book! I have also seen first hand the way the groupies hangout at mcdonalds, barbershops, churches, motels, etc. I’ve been there myself! The pictures are great too! They really brought the book to life!

My only complaint is maybe spend more time on the people’s lives and less on their cities. The peop
Rick Presley
Jun 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I cannot say enough good about this book. It is an unflinching and nonjudgemental set of vignettes of those who are most ignored in this country. It doesn't advocate for any set solution or social reform agenda. The number one best thing about this book is that it doesn't offer a glib fix to the problem.

One of the key lessons I've learned in working with the homeless and addicted is that not everyone wants the same thing. And one of the things the middle and affluent classes don't grasp is that
David M
Jul 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
A fascinating road trip through the dark heart of the USA.

The growth of extreme poverty has surely been the biggest story in America for the past generation or two. A definitive history of the making of this underclass has yet to be written. Chris Arnade does not attempt that here, offering something more humble. He thinks Americans don't spend enough time listening to each other, and so he goes out and makes friends and records their stories. As a series of profiles, the book is often stunning
Jess Etheridge
Jan 30, 2021 rated it really liked it
A book about people. Mmmm. A journalist finds himself leaving his Manhattan subculture to walk around neighborhoods in NYC that have the worst reputations. What he finds are mothers, fathers, friends, dreamers, and doers living their lives with such a different purpose and goals than he imagined. The friendships he makes inspire him to explore other “back row” communities all over America. He visits rural, jobless towns, neighborhoods run by gangs, streets lined with workers and drugs. The inter ...more
Kressel Housman
Oct 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, poverty
To start this review, I want to share that I’ve been in touch with Chris Arnade, the author of this book, and I’m totally jazzed about it. Getting immediate responses from authors is one of the great benefits of social media. When used right, it can really lift the level of humanity’s interaction.

I first heard of the book because Chris was interviewed on the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast, and if you understand what that’s about, you’ll understand something about this book. Chris is very much lik
Feb 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
In winter 1993, journalist David Simon and ex-policeman Edward Burns began conducting what would become a full year of daily interviews on a drug corner on Fayette Street in West Baltimore. They became familiar with the residents, many of whom were heroin and cocaine addicts and drug dealers. Simon and Burns recorded their experiences and, in 1997, published them in a book called The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood . This book––one of the very best I have ever read––c ...more
Dec 30, 2019 rated it did not like it
This book has the wrong title. It should be "My journey in backrow America" subtitle: "why I am such a good person". The writing is so navel-gazing it is unbearable.

The author gives us a bit of his background. He wasn't just a trader but working at an elite Wall Street bank before leaving 2012 (my emphasis - not his). He tells us all about the privileges of the people around him and why he has to quit his job. Does it sound condescending?

I also consider myself to be different from those immedi
Jan 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a generous and compassionate companion to Hoschield’s Strangers in their own land (and a nice counter to JD Vance). The best part of it is that when he talks about forgotten people, he doesn’t just talk about white people. Duh.
Nancy Mills
Feb 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
How to even describe this book? Great photos and verbal portraits of what author Chris Arnade calls "the back row" of America. The writing is his personal experience, traveling through the left-behind places and meeting with people who have very little to look forward to. Although some of the people described in this book are frustrating, in general, it gives the reader some profound insights on why people are stuck in ruts and don't --- or can't -- move on. This is like putting on someone else' ...more
Jul 05, 2019 rated it liked it
It calls to mind several recent books —“Dopesick” by Beth Macy, “$2 a Day” by Kathryn Edin, “Evicted” by Mathew Ellison, among others — all of which document the profound inequality of opportunity in America, and the suffering endured by an ever widening swath of our fellow citizens amidst great wealth accruing to a small privileged few.

There are several things that make “Dignity” different. One is the use of photography. The photos are good, but somewhat disconnected from the text. I partly th
Peter Beck
Sep 24, 2019 rated it liked it
As someone who has taken thousands of street photographs from Mongolia to Mozambique (but none in my own country), I truly admire what Chris Arnade set out to do: Capture in images and words Americans who are struggling. Despite significant shortcomings, the product of his toils, "Dignity," is well worth spending time with.

Arnade's most striking image is of a homeless father on the street with his two children in a shopping cart. Why it isn't on the cover is beyond me. The first photo essay, "Ne
Jun 23, 2020 rated it it was ok
This is a fascinating topic, but I’d recommend Evicted (Matthew Desmond) instead. The book has good photos and I think it’s important to understand “back row” America, but I don’t think Arnade does that here. It’s basically a travelogue of a guy who got bored or confused by his (good) life, went exploring, talked to people, and developed his own problems. Lacks depth. Moves erratically.

Also, while he did not record most of the conversations and instead wrote them up immediately after, somehow he
Mark Warnock
Jul 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Mature reflections on the author's direct observations of poor areas and people in America. Humane, sensible, and absorbing, supported by artful photography. I'm buying this for friends. Highly recommended. ...more
Jun 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sociology
The results of the author's journey into many of the places you're told not to go, and his interactions with the people who live there.

The author tells of his journey as a "front row" member of America: got out of small town life, got credentialed, made money. He began interacting with people who were, as he put it, in "back row" America: no credentials, and only have one another, faith, drugs, etc. He chronicles what he saw from the Bronx to Selma, Bakersfield to Lewiston, Maine.

He finds a lot
Aug 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: misc
Recommend getting a physical copy with all the pictures (not the audiobook).

While not the main theme of the book, it was interesting to see at various points author Chris Arnade reevaluating his atheism in light of the religion he was encountering on the streets.

P117-118: When I walked into the Bronx I was an atheist, something I was sure about. Standing years later outside the Gospel Lighthouse in Bakersfield I wasn’t so sure.
. . .
Like most in the front row, I am used to thinking we ha
Alex Etheridge
Oct 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2020
What photo-journalist Chris Arnade has done here is quite amazing. Quitting his high-paying, high-profile Wall Street banking job to go into some of the poorest, most forgotten and neglected neighborhoods in America with one goal: get to know the people. This puts "back row" (his words) Americans at the forefront and highlights their hardships, dreams, and daily McDonald's-filled lives. This will open your eyes to an American that is seldom talked about outside of the drugs and violence narrativ ...more
An impressive photography book about the poor in urban America. Hanging out at McDonalds, smoking, drugs, alcohol, are common in life. Work, lack of work, friction between newcomers and old timers are common. Lack of goals and enjoyment of life are common. A stirring account of poverty.
Aug 26, 2019 rated it really liked it

Get a physical copy of the book to read with all the pictures (not the audiobook). The pictures add a lot.
Jun 01, 2019 marked it as to-buy
Reviewed in The Economist
Will Barbour
Jul 15, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: documentary
Worth the read to hear the compelling, often heartbreaking stories of people living on the edge of our country. This book made me want to throw myself more into pursuing justice for the oppressed and overlooked. I was shocked at how many people were eager to share their stories with the author, whose story is interesting in its own respect. I wish he had dug even deeper into fewer stories instead of taking a mile-wide, inch-deep approach. The next time I enter a McDonald's (his favorite spot to ...more
Feb 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book started off in risky territory: a person from one group (in this case: wealthy, white, liberal. America's "front row") visiting and commenting on another group (in this case: America's "back row"). But his relentless and honest understanding of this potentially problematic set up saved the book. I appreciated his insights into how one group can't really "see" another group. His honesty about how his group usually gets their information from books was refreshing. All this made me trust ...more
Jon Beadle
Jan 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars. Easily the best book I’ve read so far this year. Beautifully written.
Paul Elliott
Jul 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
I end this book with a very similar feeling to when I read Hillbilly Elegy. Arnade was a Wall Street bond trader who quit his job and spent 5+ years exploring the "back row" of America. Places like Hunts Point, NY, Gary, IN, Cairo, IL and Portsmouth, OH. In humility, Arnade writes about the way we have humiliated those without a college education in America and discredited traditional forms of identity (place, faith) in less-educated/marginalized communities. ...more
Andrew Wolgemuth
Jan 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, culture
Wonderful - Arnade tells stories and takes pictures and provides thoughtful, insightful commentary as he does so. The result is a person-focused tour of places and people I've too often failed to see or hear.

If this book were a movie, it would be rated "R" for language and drug references.
Alex Stroshine
Aug 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sociocultural
November 2016 was a shock to millions worldwide and continues to be a riddle to many. Dozens of books have come out since the previous presidential primaries in an attempt to explore the fault lines that separate white and black America, urban and rural America, left and conservative America, polarized America. One of the most empathetic books among these is Chris Arnade's "Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America." Unlike J.D. Vance and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who mostly chronicle the plight of w ...more
Jul 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a truly eye-opening, sobering, heart-breaking series of stories about the “back row” Americans that have been left behind in America’s dying small towns and cities; the places where industry and jobs left long ago and where drug addiction and alcoholism are rampant. They stay because their families are there; their history is there; because places like Cairo, IL, Selma, AL and Hunts Point in the Bronx are HOME, and have been for generations - and because a lot of them don’t have the mean ...more
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  Mateo Askaripour is a Brooklyn-based writer whose bestselling debut novel, Black Buck, was published in January. It's been a Read with Jenna...
68 likes · 10 comments
“Much of the back row of America, both white and black, is humiliated. The good jobs they could get straight out of high school and gave the stability of a lifelong career have left. The churches providing them a place in the world have been cast as irrational, backward, and lacking. The communities that provided pride are dying, and into this vacuum have come drugs. Their entire worldview is collapsing, and then they are told this is their own fault: they suck at school and are dumb, not focused enough, not disciplined enough. It is a wholesale rejection that cuts to the core. It isn’t just about them; it is about their friends, family, congregation, union, and all they know. Whole towns and neighborhoods have been forgotten and destroyed, and when they point this out, they are told they should just get up and move (as if anyone can do that) and if they don’t, then they are clearly lazy, weak, and unmotivated.” 4 likes
“We had compassion for those left behind but thought that our job was to provide them an opportunity (no matter how small) to get where we were. We didn’t think about changing our definition of success. It didn’t occur to us that what we valued—getting more education and owning more stuff—wasn’t what everyone else wanted.” 2 likes
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