A Pharisee and a tax collector enter the local temple to pray. The Pharisee begins by thanking God that he is not a murderer, thief, adulterer, or (while peeking between clasped hands at the other parishioners) like that tax collector. As a postscript, he adds that he fasts two times each week and faithfully tithes a tenth of all his proceeds. In stark contrast, the tax collector makes an embarrassing scene. Standing at a distance, he proceeds to pound his chest, begging loudly between heaving sobs that God would grant mercy to him, a sinner.
On a surface level, neither man’s prayer is inherently insidious. The Pharisee rightly thanks God for the grace that has guarded him from various unsavory lifestyles and fueled his righteous behavior. The tax collector cries out to God for the mercy that only he can offer to sinners. What makes this parable startling is how Jesus concludes it: “I tell you that this [tax collector], rather than the [Pharisee], went home justified before God” (Luke 18:14). The reason being that the interior motives of the Pharisee poisoned his prayer. Rather than expressing gratitude to God out of humility, he endeavored to exalt himself based on his apparent righteous exterior. And that divided him from the tax collector, who depended solely on the mercy of God.
It’s a sobering illustration of how our views of righteousness divide us from one another, but it also demonstrates how our measures of success accomplish the same result, an argument at the heart of Chris Arnade’s new book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. When we define success in a way that differs from our neighbors, we run the risk of looking down on what they value and potentially dismissing their dignity altogether. Like the Pharisee, we make ourselves vulnerable to the temptation of thanking God that we are not like that one.
Why Aren’t They Like Us?
Raised in a home of humble means, Arnade wanted nothing more than to leave his hometown, and education offered the means of escape. So he made the grades, applied to the right colleges, and earned marketable degrees, launching himself into a successful career on Wall Street. He figured he was different from his affluent peers. He hadn’t grown up wealthy, and though he earned his PhD from a prestigious school (John Hopkins University), it wasn’t Harvard or Yale.
Over time, however, he came to realize that he wasn’t so different after all. His self-described progressive views about what was best for the less fortunate came not from interacting with them but from reading about them, at a comfortable remove. In 2011, after two decades on Wall Street, Arnade traded in his lucrative job for a camera and long walks through portions of New York City stashed away from the public eye. As he wandered through Hunts Point, a neighborhood in the Bronx considered unsafe to those like Arnade (read: affluent and white), he found his assumptions about rundown communities challenged—not by well-researched books or viral online articles but by the people he thought he understood. Four years later, he began traveling the country and visiting neighborhoods he was warned to stay away from to see if his experiences in Hunts Point were true elsewhere.
Which leads us to Dignity, the product of a three-year road trip across the United States, much of which Arnade spent talking with drug addicts, sex workers, and poverty-stricken individuals over a cup of coffee in McDonald’s. Each of his stops was an intentional choice based primarily upon word from others that it was a place too dangerous or dilapidated to visit. As the book’s subtitle suggests, Arnade refers to the people who live in these areas as “back row” Americans.
Dignity reads more like an essay compilation than a straight narrative, in that Arnade’s method is piecing together the stories of various individuals and the communities in which they live. Rather than writing as an outsider looking in, Arnade steps onto the turf of his subjects. And he adds to his credibility as an observer by critiquing his own assumptions along the way.
Arnade’s pictures accompany the book’s written portions. Throughout his three-year road trip, Arnade captured a bevy of moments, some of them joyful and others unsettling. There are photos of children playing in the spray of a fire hydrant on an empty street, weekly Bible studies at the local McDonald’s, abandoned industrial factories, and a heroin addict in the act of shooting up. The images lend an added layer of dignity to the book’s subjects, achieving an emotional impact beyond what words alone can manage.
They are the back row—the ones who do not want to leave the places where they were born, who could not move to attend college because they were responsible for an ailing parent or a young child, who lacked the network for recommendation letters and résumé builders, who began using drugs because joining other addicts supplied the community and pride they longed for and couldn’t find elsewhere. What they wanted they could not have, Arnade argues, because it did not fit within a Wall-Street system responsible for gutting working-class jobs that were plentiful only a generation before.
It is a system, Arnade writes, “that says you cannot reject anyone based on the color of their skin, but you can and should reject those without the proper credentials,” all the while ignoring the fact that members of the back row—and especially minority members—lack access to these credentials. So they look for belonging in places that require no such credentials, places of little value to the economic-growth-obsessed front row: among drug users, in houses of faith, in the struggling cities and towns where they grew up.
Dignity takes up a crucial question: To what extent can we blame front-row people (and the lifestyles they follow) for the back-row dwellers’ plight? As Arnade was ascending the ladder of success, he had envisioned using his newfound freedom and influence to help those left behind. But what he failed to realize is that, along the way, he had removed himself from the lived experiences of those he claimed to care about, which narrowed his view of the world. It also narrowed his definition of what makes a successful life.
For Arnade, this is what it means to belong to America’s front row: Rather than learning how those left behind desire to live, we task ourselves with helping them become like us, ignoring the emotional and relational costs of pulling up roots to pursue education and a white-collar career. But what if back-row Americans remain where they are by choice? What if their roots grow deep not because they lack intelligence or drive but because they have different definitions of success? Perhaps they are not the problem. Perhaps, instead, the system we have created has prevented us from honoring non-material values like community, faith, place, and dignity.
In recent years, the working class has become a subject of popular examination. The 2016 election, in particular, sparked a renewed interest in the travails of the white working class, which has been credited with playing an influential role in Donald Trump’s ascendance to the White House. The summer before the election, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy became one of the year’s most popular works, one that has figured prominently in conversations about class ever since.
Much of this commentary, of course, comes from the outside looking in—take Vance, for instance, who left his working-class upbringing behind to pursue a more stable lifestyle. But once narratives about class reach the level of national political debate, they tend to become more abstract and theoretical in nature, losing sight of the ground-level complexities—not to mention the flesh-and-blood people themselves.
As Arnade observes in the opening pages of Dignity, expert-level analyses of America’s working-class crisis are often light on self-analysis. On more than one occasion, the book forced me to pause and consider my own definition of success. Like it or not, I am a member of the front row Arnade describes. My lifestyle affords me the luxury of removing myself from many of the daily experiences recounted in the book. And while that does not necessarily make me the problem, it does compel me to steward well what I have received and question whether I, too, am operating by a definition of success that robs others of dignity and opportunity.
To his credit—and likely the frustration of many readers—Arnade concludes the book with shrugging shoulders, offering no concrete solutions to the problems he surfaces. This is because the issues he raises are massive, requiring more than the analysis of one man driving around the country in a minivan. But this cultural rethinking has to begin somewhere, and Dignity is a worthy starting point.
Stereotypes are easy, but they rarely reflect reality. We would all do well to listen to one another with a greater sense of charity. Arnade’s subjects may belong to the back row, but they possess dignity because they are made in God’s image. They are people before they are political or economic “problems,” and the only way for any of us to truly broaden our perspectives beyond self-serving conclusions is to meet one another eye-to-eye.
As Christians, we can and should thank God for his blessings. We should thank him, too, for the ways in which his grace has restrained us from destructive life choices. But we should never caricature those who have not experienced the same good fortune—especially when so many of them worship alongside us every Sunday morning. They bear a story and a reality that no statistic can fully communicate. Wherever back-row Americans rank in the country’s cultural and economic hierarchy, they have a front-row seat whenever they approach the throne of grace.
Collin Huber is a writer and senior editor at Fathom magazine.