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Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  443 ratings  ·  100 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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4.07  · 
Rating details
 ·  443 ratings  ·  100 reviews

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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Jun 01, 2019 marked it as to-buy
Reviewed in The Economist
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.
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
Mike E.
This is a first hand account of two worlds existing in America (with compelling photography of the poor by a self-proclaimed upper-class white guy). The author labels these two worlds the "front row" and the "back row." The front row has credentials and wealth, education and mobility. The back row has poverty, immobility, and few opportunities for mobility or advancement. The back row turns to McDonald's, churches, drugs, gangs, and race for identity. Few find contentment in the back row. Dignit ...more
Jul 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book's central argument is that there is a hidden-in-plain-sight rack row America, consisting of people who lack the credentials for dignity (or even survival) in our society. Common experiences in back row America are childhood trauma, lack of education, loss of manufacturing jobs, and racism. Common coping methods are addiction and religion (especially Pentecostal and evangelical varieties). In back row America, it is not uncommon to live one's whole life within a few square miles.
The boo
Ian Mccausland
Aug 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
I bought this book to read and learn about this part of America I don’t see reflected anywhere else. I’m Canadian, we certainly have our own set of problems up here but they differ from the ones portrayed in the book. The sheer scale of it all is overwhelming.
Kudos to Arnade trying to understand what’s going on. Does he do a perfect job? Probably not. Does he offer a silver bullet solution to it all? No cuz there is none. But I really admired his efforts in trying. The photos are great and do a
Michelle S. Berryman
Jul 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Provocative to the point of being distracting. This book filled my brain with so much to contemplate about my own past and my place in the world. I found it hard to process it all and my take-away is that Chris Arnade also found it hard to process. The book paints a massively depressing and complicated portrait of the back row, the divide between the back row and the front row and no easy resolutions. It's well written and it's clearly a passion project. Arnade is sensitive to his subjects and t ...more
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.
Jun 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Review to come.

My June non-fiction read.
Jun 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I could tear up because it's like reading and going, "this is who I am." I've never seen the working class explained like this before. He gets it.
Laurie Plummer
Although this book was extremely interesting and very well written, I only gave it 3 stars because of how it made me feel after I finished reading it...
Natalie Allen
wow. the front cover says this book will break your heart and give you hope at the same time. and what an understatement. this book takes the able bodied workers with no place to find work but so many friends and such a strong sense of community a voice. there's the guy who sells drugs because there's no other way to make money to the old union workers who talk about the good old days at mcdonald's and the prostitute who describes herself as a mother, a christian, and a prostitute all in the spo ...more
Jun 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Wow, I picked this up thinking it was primarily a book of photography that I could peruse in the library. I did end up reading it. The essence of the dilemma for back row America is not one I have encountered before and really spoke to me. Globalization disenfranchising humans who are simply anchored to their community by choice. My grandparents were much like that.

I am a global citizen by birth really. My childhood was that of a tumbleweed lacking any rootedness. Military father. Blinders and
Jun 07, 2019 marked it as to-read
Jun 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
There were parts of this book I liked and admired and parts where I believe the author overstepped his own credentials. This is one of the first books I have found to recognize that racism is prevalent all over the country, not just in the South. While I grew up in the South, I went to school in Wisconsin-an hour away from Milwaukee. People loved to point at me and say the South is racist but fail to recognize they are racist in many ways as well, just in different ways. I admired his work for p ...more
Albert Norton
Jul 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I read a bunch of reviews of this book before picking it up myself and they often remark upon the objective and nonjudgmental approach Arnade takes. He's purposely encountering people we might think of as down and out, to try to understand them. One of his conclusions is that a major driver for all of them is a desire for dignity. Another, I think, is they're all people inherently deserving of respect as such, even if the way they've lived their lives renders them invisible, or perhaps ignore-a ...more
Alex Stroshine
Aug 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
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
Emily M
Aug 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
The first part of this book was really good. Arnade is at his best when he lets the disenfranchised speak for themselves. The stories he tells ring very true to me--there's a reason I meet up with my daughter's birth mom at McDonald's, not Starbucks. Poor white drug addicts feel comfortable in the former and not the latter! I think my own family's takeaway has been to step in and engage the broken where they are, not where you think you would be in their shoes. We all share a desire to be heard ...more
Nathan Meyers
Aug 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
Dignity is a complicated book that mirrors its complicated author, but is very well worth your time. A remarkable piece of photojournalism, Dignity is best seen as a project of humanization and deconstruction. Through Chris' topical essays but mostly through his extraordinary photographs, Chris humanizes the 'back row' individuals of impoverished communities across America. He gives voice to their stories, sympathizes with their plights, and presents photographs that will stay with the reader fo ...more
Three stars for it being at least a readable book with good photos. But there are many problems, first of which other reviewers have pointed out on here. Arnade is too involved in the story himself. It wouldn't be as big of a deal, but there aren't many lives put on display here, more like small vignettes and quotes you'd see in a New York Times piece.

My bigger issue is the framing. It's fine that the framing is not objective and devoid of politics (to the extent of which that is possible), alth
Ro Laberee
Jul 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Ro by: education, liberty, science, faith, health,
I have driven through a few of the forgotten towns of America where the only sign of industry are at the single forlorn-looking McDonald's and in the Walmart parking lot. I would never get out of my car in such a town; I'm not even comfortable stopping at red lights. But the people on the streets of these towns don't even look up when you drive by. They don't make eye contact. Reading this book helped me understand why.

I confess, I have from time to time harbored uncharitable thoughts about back
Jun 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Chris Arnade, the author of Dignity, defines front row America as the upwardly mobile, almost entirely white meritocracy he came from, where a person's value is measured by what he knows and how much he owns. In contrast, back row America is the forgotten people on the bottom of the heap: mostly but not all black, but all of them poor, and most with no education at all. They include the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, and people who simply do what they have to in order to get by from day to ...more
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