Excerpts from Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America
I had always taken long walks, sometimes as long as fifteen miles, to explore and reduce stress, but now the walks began to evolve. Rather than walk with some plan to walk the entire length of Broadway, or along the length of a subway line, I started walking the less seen parts of New York City, the parts people claimed were unsafe or uninteresting, walking with no goal other than eventually getting home. Along the walk I talked to whoever talked to me, and I let their suggestions, not my instincts and maps, navigate me. I also used my camera to take portraits of those I met, and I became more and more drawn to the stories people inevitably wanted to share about their life.
The walks, the portraits, the stories I heard, the places they took me, became a process of learning in a different kind of way. Not from textbooks, or statistics, or spreadsheets, or PowerPoint presentations, or classrooms, or speeches, or documentaries—but from people.
What I started seeing, and learning, was just how cloistered and privileged my world was and how narrow and selfish I was. Not just in how I lived but in what and how I thought.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (p. 2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I began to realize I hadn’t ended up much different at all. I had done pretty much what successful Americans do, regardless of their politics. I had removed myself from the realities of the majority of Americans. I was a member of an exclusive club, one requiring an elite education to enter. I was sitting in my expensive home, in my exclusive neighborhood, forming opinions and casting judgments about what was best for others largely just from what I read.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (p. 3). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In the middle of 2015, I stopped going regularly to Hunts Point. I was drinking too much. While I could understand my friends’ drug use as forged from trauma, mine was simply about selfishness. I could no longer be around easily available drugs and daily dramas that made my mistakes seem minor; the contrast unmoored me.
Also, Takeesha and her friends didn’t need me trying to save them, something I found myself explicitly and implicitly trying to do, either through constant attempts at helping them get into detox, get into rehab, or get off the streets. They could handle themselves—they had thirty years on the streets proving that. If I had an obligation to them, it wasn’t to assume what was best for them; rather, it was to listen and try to understand what they valued, what they wanted, and not get in the way.
I also stopped going to Hunts Point because I wanted to see if what I had seen in the Bronx was representative of the rest of the country. To fine out, I got in my minivan and visited other places across America. In each place I focused on the communities and neighborhoods that, like Hunts Point, I was told not to go.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (p. 14). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Despite their differences – black, white, Hispanic, rural, urban – they were all similar to Hunts point in one important way: despite being stigmatized, ignored, and made fun of, most of the people I met were fighting to maintain dignity.
They feel disrespected—and with good reason. My circles, the bankers, business people, and the politicians they supported had created a world where McDonald’s was often one of the only restaurant options—and we make fun of them for going there. We pretend that the addicted take drugs because of bad character, not because it’s one of the few ways they have to dull the pain of not being able to live good lives in the economy we’ve created for them. We tell them that their religion is foolish and that they shouldn’t expect to be able to earn a living unless they leave their hometowns. We say the white working class is racist while the policies we endorse hurt the bulk of minorities. It is not surprising some have responded with cynicism or apathy, or rebel in anger.
This book is not a book about “how we got Trump,” 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 honoring aspects of life that cannot be measured, and about an attempt to listen and look with humility.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (pp. 17-18). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Our country is split into two worlds. In one, the downtowns are filled with nightlife, restaurants, well-maintained bike paths, and pedestrian crosswalks. You can tell you’re in this world by the kinds of grocery stores there are and by how many and what kind of vegetables they stock. You can tell by whether the convenience stores carry diet drinks.
In this world the residents told me of challenges overcome and plans for the future. There were fears and frustrations, but they were mostly about compromised dreams or juggling too much. Should I move to the West Coast to be an intern or go to grad school in DC?
Portsmouth is part of the other world—the world of Hunts Point, where the stories told are about wrongs endured, frustrations that seem truly insurmountable, and a longing for what once was. The anxieties here come from having limited options: My company changed ownership, and there are rumors it will move to another state. With my sisters gone, there will be nobody to take care of my parents if I move. I’ve got symptoms that scare me, but I don’t have the money for the doctor. I can’t apply for school because I’ve got an outstanding charge and don’t want to be found.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (p. 40). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
James and his kids are a dramatic example of the pain I found in the world of Hunts Points and Portsmouths. It was a pain I found in every town I visited, from Buffalo to New Haven to Cleveland to Selma to El Paso to Amarillo. In each of these places, there’s a sense of having been left behind, of being forgotten—or, even worse, of being mocked and stigmatized by the members of the world who are moving on and up with the GDP.
In many cases, these areas are literally left behind by people like me. I spent most of my life focused on getting ahead by education. Putting education first and going to college and then grad school were expected, so I applied myself. I left my rural hometown and got into elite schools, which got me into elite jobs, which got me into an elite neighborhood.
I was hardly alone. My office, my neighborhood, and most of my adult friends were like me and like the residents of most successful neighborhoods across the country, ones filled with bankers, professors, and lawyers. Almost all of us had used education to leave a hometown that we saw as oppressive, intolerant, and judgmental—often aggressively so. Education was the way out, so we dedicated ourselves to doing everything the system asked of us, starting with focusing on building a résumé for access to the right college. As we progressed, we gathered credentials—college degrees, summer internships, memberships in exclusive groups—building a larger and larger résumé. We had all navigated through a series of small, elite educational institutions that had gained us access to elite jobs, which gained us access to exclusive neighborhoods.
In many ways, we were akin to the kids who sat in the front row, always eager to learn and make sure the teacher knew they were learning. We wanted to get ahead—and we had. We were now in the front row of everything we did, not physically but hierarchically. We were at the top of our class, we went to the top colleges and top graduate schools, and we landed jobs in the top law firms, banks, universities, media companies, tech companies, and so on.
The shared experience and the rules necessary to succeed had left us with the same worldview. We were dedicated to knowledge, learning as much as we could but almost always from books. We saw the truth as something that could be figured out with enough study, with enough devotion to science and rational thought. Given enough time, enough data, enough experiments, enough computers, we believed we could figure out most anything.
We were mobile, having moved many times before, and we would move again. Staying put was seen as failure. You advanced in your career, and that required not being tied to one place. Our community was global, allowing us to proclaim it to be diverse, despite every resident sharing a similar path beyond high school.
We used our dominance to change the world. The desire to change the world came from a good place since many of us were well-intentioned. We generally understood we were privileged and fought to make our country more inclusive for minorities. This meant dismantling a system that demeaned, denied, and dehumanized so many based simply on the color of their skin, their sexuality, or their views.
Yet we didn’t get just how deep and pervasive our privilege was. We were well intended, but we had removed ourselves from the lived experiences of most of the country, including the places and people we wanted to help. The vast majority of minorities and the working poor were excluded from our club—by a lack of credentials and by a system rigged against them getting any.
Our similar path to success, our education, and our isolation from the bulk of the country, left us with a narrow view of the world. We primarily valued what we could measure, and that meant material wealth. The things that couldn’t be easily measured—community, dignity, faith, happiness—were largely ignored because they were hard to see—especially from so far away.
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.
In the front row, growing the economy and increasing efficiency were goals most of us, whether Democrat or Republican, put first and agreed on. We believed in free trade, globalization, and deregulation. Our metrics for success became how high the stock market got, how large the profits were, how efficient the company was. If certain communities, towns, and people, suffered in this, it was all for the greater good in the name of progress.
Our obsession with economic growth empowered massive corporations that filled many communities with franchises and big-box stores, crushing the downtowns that had once had small locally owned shops and restaurants. The economy grew, but gone were the local community, the labor union, and lifetime jobs for those without a college degree.
While our front row neighborhoods filled with bespoke and artisanal stores, those left behind, literally and figuratively, were left to cope with the new landscape we had created.
If we were the front row, they were the back row. They were the people who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college. The students who didn’t take to education, because it wasn’t necessarily their thing or because they had far too many obligations—family, friends, problems large and small—to focus on studying. They want to graduate from high school and get a stable job allowing them to raise a family, often in the same community they were born into.
Instead the back row is now left living in a banal world of hyper efficient fast-food franchises, strip malls, discount stores, and government buildings with flickering fluorescent lights and dreary-colored walls festooned with rules. They are left with a world where their sense of home and family and community won’t get them anywhere, won’t pay the bills. And with a world where their jobs are disappearing.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (pp. 44-47). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The loss of jobs for the back row is visible all across America. When you get beyond the college campuses and wealthier neighborhoods, you find empty factories, or empty lots surrounded with security wire, or just an empty field with weeds growing out of a cement foundation. The companies have closed or downsized dramatically, shuttered by automation or just “moved to Mexico or China.”
These job losses were the result of policies put in place during the preceding decades, policies that focused on boosting economic growth, profits, and efficiency, policies supported by me and others in the front row. In the name of greater economic growth, more efficiency, and higher profits, we opened our borders to a flood of cheaper products coming in and a flood of factories and jobs moving away. We empowered distant shareholders at the expense of local employees. We gave my old world, Wall Street, whatever it wanted, and what it really wanted was to lower labor costs no matter how. Mostly that meant shipping US jobs requiring muscle overseas and bringing jobs requiring college here.
For me and the others surrounding me, the job losses were accepted as the cost of progress, their numbers shrugged off because they would be offset by gains elsewhere. They were a small loss compared to the many gains that growth and our new efficiency would bring. That those gains were mostly in places we lived didn’t hurt either.
Jobs are not the only thing that Portsmouth has lost over the last few decades. Those jobs were the backbone of the community. People could walk straight from their graduation onto the factory floor and build a life around it. They would get a chunk of money every two weeks, get health care and pensions, which gave them the stability to get the home with the white picket fence and build a family.
Without stable jobs to build a family around, Portsmouth began to fall apart. This happened in other back row towns, too. Whole communities started to fall apart, leaving a void in the center of town.
It was the other losses, the ones that followed the job losses – the crumbling town centers, the broken families, the isolation, the pain, the desperation, the drugs, the humiliation and anger – that we in the front row didn’t fully see or understand. The devastating impact of the breakdown of community didn’t show up in our spreadsheets.
The people left in these communities, who saw their factories disappear, their downtowns devastated, their neighborhoods fill with drugs and despair, they understood that the losses were more than just numbers in a spreadsheet. They have done their best to make due, to hold on to community and dignity. They have done this by creating new relationships and communities in whatever spaces are available. In the Bronx and in rural areas, in black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, that includes McDonald’s
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (pp. 50-51). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Being abused by the people who were supposed to rescue them was the ultimate destruction of trust, so they fled, running away either literally or mentally. Therapists call this “dissociation.” On the street they call it being fucked over, and one solution to being fucked over is taking drugs, mostly heroin.
That feeling of rejection can also come from larger social forces, something minorities know all to well. Racism is multifaceted in its ugliness, and the sense of rejection by a mostly white “successful” society is one of those ugly faces. Growing up black or Latino in Hunts Point, East New York, or the Bronx; or Buffalo’s East Side; or Milwaukee’s North Side; or Selma, Alabama, means being confined. It means being forced to live in a certain neighborhood, one with fewer legal opportunities – fewer jobs, fewer schools, less money, less everything. It can be isolating and depressing.
It isn’t just about money. These entire communities are stigmatized socially and culturally. The feeling of being excluded, of being different, is more than about what things you own; it is also about what you know, what you learn, how you approach issues. The tools you have available to solve those issues are all different, and they can be isolating.
It is about the big things and the small. It is about the type of music that surrounds you, the clothes available to you, the food your friends like, how you cut your hair, how you wear your pants. It is about how you see yourself in the world. It is about being physically strong when everyone now values being smart. It is about caring about place and family when everyone now values caring more about career. It is about caring about faith when everyone now values science or liking McDonald’s when everyone says it it bad. It can be everything and anything, and the sum of it all can be overwhelming.
It is about being on the outside while not knowing how to operate on the inside. Not knowing how to dress, talk, or walk how they say you’re supposed to. Things you need to know because the insiders make the rules and you need to know the rules if you have to navigate the game of life: “If you gonna make money in this tricky world, you need to know them tricky rules.”
While trauma and racism have long been sources of rejection, a lock of education is becoming a larger source as those at the bottom of our school system are falling further behind economically and socially. To get a steady job that you can be proud of and build a life around, you need more than high school; yu need a college degree, not just from any college, but from one of the better schools. This has mad a lack of education all the more isolating.
It is also a stigma that is considered your fault. We claim our educational system is a meritocracy that anyone can excel in with enough dedication and smarts. We loudly celebrate those who rise above their surroundings, study hard, get a scholarship, get the big job, and move to the nice neighborhood.
See, we say, anyone can do if they are smart and apply themselves. The moral being, if you fail, it is your fault, because you are lazy, or dumb, or slow.
Rarely mentioned is the vast difference in the quality of our schools, the vast difference in how much help students get, and the vast differences in how many personal problems students face.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (pp. 84-86). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I never intended to stay in my hometown and rarely remember feeling, except when I was very young, like it was my home. I always knew I would leave as soon as I could, and I did so after high school to go to a state college two hours away. It wasn’t far, but I never imagined a future that included my hometown beyond summer work or holidays.
I was the youngest of seven, and all of my siblings left, although most stud around longer than I did. We al had good childhoods in our town, all had close friends growing up, all joined in where best we could (sports, religion, drinking, and drugs), but it was easy for us to leave for college. My parents moved to our small town in 1961, and this, their education, and their politics made us outsiders. Most around us had local roots going back generations, few had parents with higher education, and beyond the black community, few actively supported civil rights.
It was our home, but we didn’t’ have to like it. We also had options and expectations most didn’t
Few in my high school were expected to go to college, and few had the resources or information necessary if they had wanted to go. For them, the military was the way out. Those who went to college were expected to return to support their family or work in their business or farm.
So most people styed in town and built a life there and when I came back each holiday, which I did until my parents moved in 2008, I rarely saw the town change, rarely saw people leave, rarely saw new faces beyond children. Each time I was reminded it was odd that I had left so easily and early.
In my new life, in the front row of the front row, it wasn’t odd at all that I had left. Here most everyone had moved multiple times and moved again for the right opportunity. Here many had grown up feeling like an outsider, stigmatized because of their political views, social views, or lifestyle. All had moved to focus on their education and find an environment less judgmental of then and their views. Here everyone was about their careers and how they saw themselves. Few rarely said where they were from, beyond what college or grad school they attended. Place was just a temporary step in a process.
I was part of a global group of lawyers, bankers, business people, and professors who are their profession first and a New Yorker, Brit, or Southerner second. They are as comfortable in New York City as they are in London or Paris or Sao Paula or Hong King. Well, the right neighborhoods in each.
In their minds, staying put is a mistake. If you stay, you limit your career, you limit your wealth, and you limit your intellectual growth. They also don’t fully understand the value of place because like religion, it is hard to measure. What is the value of staying near the family that raised you or in the valley where you were born?
Had I asked those in my hometown when I visited why the stayed, why they were still there, I would have gotten the answer I heard from Cairo, to Amarillo, to rural Ohio. They would have looked at my like I was crazy, then said, “Because it is my home.”
It is an answer that is obvious, because there is value in home, but it isn’t just the value of the house or the yard. It is the connections, networks, friends, family congregation, the Little League team, the usuals at the hairdresser, regulars at the bar, the union hall, the crew at the vape store, the regulars at the half-price movie night, the guys for Tuesday night baseball.
The front row doesn’t fully get that because they don’t see that value, and like me, they moved before and they will probably move again. We have broken our connections and build new owns. If we can do it, so can anyone else, we think.
When communities and towns are destroyed, partly because of the front row’s policies of globalization, the front row solution is, “Well, just move.” Buffalo is dying, so just leave Buffalo. Or Appalachia or the Rust Belt or Texas or Ohio or wherever they see suffering. It doesn’t matter where people work, where they live, or where they raise a family. If a factory moves and a town dies, then workers can just move.
Never mind that place, family, and friends are often the only network many people have, the only community that provides them a vital role, because what matters is growth at all cost – even if it is brutal – and that requires everyone to always be economic migrants.
The front row likes to say that the US is a contry of migrants, where people have long moved for jobs. This has been done before – the dust bowl, the northern migration of African Americans. Yet those were a reaction to failure, not a sign of success.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (pp. 151-153). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Viewed from a distance, Crystal’s and Andrew’s decisions to stay and attend a small community college don’t’ make much sense. Everyone is supposed to want the best education to make the best career. That is the message everyone hears, and it is how we reward people. We repeat over and over, “Get the best education you can, go to the best school you can.” Yet do we really want to be a society that stigmatizes a daughter or a sone who stays to help their parents?
It is more than just the emotional and physical obligations of family that make it harder for children from back to towns to move. It is also about their sense of identity. Leaving for college or to live in another town means giving up a part of who you are. Going to college means becoming a different person, and many kids understand that and want that. Like I did, and like so many people I met at college and grad school and in my career did. We didn’t necessarily fit in with the community we were born into, and the community didn’t value our choices and our identity. For us, leaving, if we could to it, made sense.
For others, who feel at home where they are born, it is harder. Moving for college or work means becoming detached from their old identity. It is an especially hard choice for those living in towns struggling and labeled failures. Part of their identity has become intertwined with failure, adding another level of stigma for staying. Even though corrupted and stigmatized, that identity is all some have.
Moving would mean destroying their identity and breaking their support system of family and friends. Their happiness would be reduced. The few good things they hav going for them, things that don’t cost money, would disappear.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (pp. 159-160). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I realized to my horror that I had shielded myself from the visceral racism that still permeates most of the US. And that I couldn’t pin this continued racism entirely on my Southern white neighbors, who had supported the explicitly racist system we had moved beyond.
When I went home, I saw that some of those angry white kids had grown up to be tolerant, and almost all were living lives closer to the minorities I claimed to want justice for than I was. Those white kids and those black kids I had left behind now had more in common with each other – shopping in the same shops, working the same types of jobs – than I had with either.
I still tried to say, “Well, I don’t’ support the old explicitly racist system, so I can’t be racist.” Yet the system that replaced it, the one we supported and thrived in, was racist. It is a system that ranks people by how much you learn and how much you earn, and it is rigged against the back row, and minorities disproportionally start and are confined there. As educator Vivian Wilson Henderson said, “Racism put blacks in their economic place, but changes in the modern economy make the place in which they find themselves more and more precarious.”
That system isn’t just legal rigged against them; it is rigged against their entire worldview. It is rigged against people who find meaning from place and from faith. It is a system that says you cannot reject anyone based on the color of their skin, but you can and should reject those without the proper credentials.
It is a system that offers only an extraordinarily narrow path to success, requiring one to be uprooted from family and home, and they buy into the front row world-view. It is a system especially hard on minorities who suffer from the least access to credentials.
The front row, when it views the problems faced by minorities doesn’t bend, redefine, or adjust their definition of success. They rarely reevaluate their own values, their own worldview, their own priorities. They rarely look inward at the status quo they have constructed and it narrow and rigid definition of success. They rarely ask if maybe their narrow definition of success, narrow definition of value, is itself exclusionary.
Instead they tell minorities, like they tell the entire back row, that they need to readjust their values, readjust their worldview, and try to join the front row. They do this by offering a few of them help via an accelerated pathway to the credentials they have.
Like anyone from the back row, minorities don’t necessarily want to buy into the front row world. They don’t want to leave their family and change where they live, who they are, what the believe, what they like, how the act, what they care fore, what the value.
In the black community the term “acting white” captures some of this, but it is larger than just how you behave; it is changing what you believe. It requires not just “acting front row” but becoming front row. Given the absurdly narrow path available, given the overwhelming amount stacked against them, that is something most can’t do. It is also something that many don’t care to do anyway – and for good reason.
The direct solution we offer for minorities is affirmative action, an accelerated boost to the front row for a lucky few, an although justifiable in the short term, it is a Band-Aid for system needing surgery. For one thing, it still presumes that the main problem is a lack of education or credentialed achievement, impaling that people who value less measurable forms of meaning get what’s coming to them. For another, affirmative action inflames racial tensions as it drives another wedge between the white and black members of the back row.
This is especially dangerous because the back row has been left with little to take pride in that doesn’t need credentials. For those who don’t have the resources, personality, or desire to get an education, there is little left that values them. There are fewer and fewer jobs to take pride in, the religious life is viewed as illogical, and local pride is said to be provincial. There is another option: racial identiy. That option is the most dangerous.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (pp. 210-212). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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 ben 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.
Everyone wants to feel like a valued member of something larger than themselves. The current status quo doesn’t do that for most Americans, because it only understands value in economic forms of meaning. In that world it is all about getting credentials, primarily those gained by education.
The current status quo supports a system that is said to be a meritocracy that allows anyone to rise to the top. To get there you just have to follow a path that weaves through a series of select educational institutions, internships, jobs, and communities.
It is a path that is supposed to be available to everyone regardless of class, race, gender, and sexuality. Yet the path is tightly rationed, with only a few allowed access each year. It is a path requiring information (how to apply, where to apply) and resources (economic and cultural) that few beyond those with the right families born into the right communities have.
For those born into well-connected communities, there is plenty of support and a long history to draw from to navigate the path. For those born outside these communities, there is little guidance. It’s about not just money but having the time and access to needed information. Many children have no idea about the rules, language, and expectations of education (something needed to navigate the path) because they don’t know anyone who went to college. Other children are overwhelmed early with caring for older family members or dealing with the problems of adults. Some children are tasked with parenting the parent – a responsibility that denies them the time to dedicate to their own education.
The educational meritocracy is a well-intentioned system to correct massive injustices that enslaved, demeaned, constricted, and ranked people based on the color of their skin, sexuality, and gender. Yet in attempting to correct a nasty and explicit exclusion, we have replaced it with an exclusion that narrowly defines success as all about how much you can learn and then earn.
It is a system that applauds itself for being a meritocracy, allowing anyone to succeed. Implying that those who don’t choose this path, who can’t or don’t pick up and move constantly, who can’t overcome the long odds, are failures and it is their own fault. They are not smart enough. You didn’t make it out because you suck. That is humiliating.
It is all the more frustrating because the new system is still unjust and slanted against minorities, relegating them to second-class citizens, rejecting them at birth. Few minorities are born into communities or families with the right connections and enough resources to navigate the path.
For them, the rejection, frustration, and humiliation aren’t new. They have long been subjected to the cruel trope that they are the lesser. Long subjected to demeaning and amoral conditions – legal and illegal, large and small – simply based on their race and place of birth. It has made getting an education and a decent job and building a meaningful life a long shot overcome only with immense focus or immense luck. Then, if they fail at long odds, they are told it is their fault. Their fault for being lazy, dumb, or whatever the speaker feels they need to me. When they play the long odds because the sort odds aren’t available, they are told they are morally weak, prone to illegal behavior, or just dumb.
This has made growing up in places like Selma, Milwaukee’s North Side, Easy New York, or the Bronx frustrating and humiliating.
People respond to humiliation in different ways, but the most common response is to find a source of pride wherever 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.
Drugs are one of them. Bars, drug traps, and crack houses offer communities that don’t’ care abut your past, your failures, or the color of your skin. As long as you join in, shooting up or taking a hit or swallowing the pills, it is all OK. They also offer a numbing salve from the pain of humiliation. It is a reckless choice, but when your choices are limited, recklessness might be all you have.
Many churches offer that, especially Pentecostal and evangelical faiths. They offer a community with few barriers of entry, regardless of someone’s past. The only requirement is a desire to reform, to live a different way, to accept a set of rules on how you live your live and how you expect others to live. They also provide a place in the larger world. You may not be valued here and now, but you are valued by God, and you will be valued in the afterlife.
Living in the place you grew up doesn’t require credentials. It’s a form of meaning that cannot be measured. Family doesn’t require credentials. Having a child is an action that provides meaning, immediate pride, and a role, especially for the mother wo can find value in raising a family.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (pp. 231-234). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
After five years documenting addiction, poverty, and pain, after the election of Donald Trump, after the explosion of drug deaths, I get asked: What are the solutions? What are the policies we should put in place? What can we do differently, beyond yell at one another? All I can say is “I don’t know” or the almost equally wishy-washy “We all need to listen to each other more.”
It is wishy washy, but that is what I truly believe, because our nation’s problems and differences are just too big, too structural, and too deep to be solved by legislation and policy out of Washington.
We need everyone – those in the back row, those in the front row – to listen to one another and try to understand one another and understand what they value and try to be less judgmental.
While the back row is certainly judgmental, certainly intolerant (often cruelly), certainly guilty of excluding others and damning people based on differences, those of us in the front row have a special obligation to listen because we presently are the in-group. We are the ones who have spent our lives with the goal of making the country a better place. We are the ones who get paid well in money and status because we claim to know what is best. We are the ones who asked to be in control. We are the ones who moved from our hometown (sure, sometimes we were forced to leave by an intolerance) to have a larger voice in shaping our country.
We have an outsize voice, and many of us have the noble goal of using that voice to build a more inclusive society, to fix the ugly racism, sexism, and inequality. Yet we have created a status quo that is often inclusive in name only. We have created a system that still excludes far too many people, mostly minorities but certainly all of the poor.
While this is partly a failure to have our vision implemented and partly due to the intolerance, racism, and rigidity in the back row, at a larger, deeper level, it is also our fault. Not necessarily out of bad intentions but because we have lost sight of our own privilege and our own worldview, which values only what we value and have. We have done this because we have removed ourselves from those we believe we are trying to help.
We have moved 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 spreadsheet and statistics, believing we are ell intentioned, believing we are rally valuing them. Instead we are diminishing them by seeing then as simply numbers to be manipulated.
We have implemented policies that focus narrowly on one value of meaning; the material. We emphasize GDP and efficiency, those things that we can measure, leaving behind the value of those that are harder to quantify – like community, happiness, friendship, pride, and integration.
We have created a system with economics as the central form of meaning and material goods as the primary form of valuation. In this system, education and credentials are central to economic success. 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 wo don’t’ make it our are dumb, or lazy or stupid.
This has ensured that all those at the bottom, educationally and economically – black, white, gay, straight, men, and women, are guaranteed to feel excluded, rejected, and most of all, humiliated. We have denied many their dignity, leaving a vacuum easily filled by drugs, anger, and resentment.
– Arnade, Chris. Dignity (pp. 282-284). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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