Review: Dignity

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Review for "Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America" by Chris Arnade (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Several years ago, physicist and Wall Street trader Chris Arnade decides to leave his cushy life and visit the working class neighborhood of Hunts Point, deep in the NYC borough of the Bronx. He builds up a relationship with the residents there, listening to their stories and taking pictures of them living, working, doing and selling drugs, and engaging in sex work. Arnade eventually develops a relationship with the people of Hunts Point, and after documenting their stories, decided that he wanted to know more about similar communities across America and the people living in them, areas with no jobs and mostly forgotten by public policies.

“Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” is one man’s journey into poor, working class life in America. He visits large cities and smaller towns: Bakersfield, California; Portsmouth, Kentucky; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cairo, Illinois; Gary, Indiana. Arnade shares what he learns in photographs and in themed essays about topics such as racism, drugs, religion, coping.

On one hand I admire the author’s attempt at honest investigation, as well as his decision as a member of America’s “front row” to try to understand “back row” poor people. But on the other hand I’m not so sure about this book or its approach. For one, he seems to lack the knowledge to help him fully understand what he sees. While I appreciate that the author never judges or condemns the people he writes about (many of which use drugs, engage in sex work, and other criminal behaviors), this book worked best when he let the photos talk and he didn’t try to explain or analyze their lives.

This necessary ‘silence,’ of course, doesn’t happen here. All over this book are the author’s explanations and suggested reasonings for why and what he’s encountering in the lives of the people he meets. He offers no sociological or psychological support for his analyses or larger discussion into the the failure of ‘trickle-down’ economics, there’s no study or graphs to support any of his viewpoints. And while I’m not criticizing him for injecting his bias into a book such as this, I am criticizing the lack of evidence to back it up.

This isn’t a bad book, however. I definitely encourage people to read it, if for nothing else then to remind those in the “front row” of those who live completely parallel lives.

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