Back Row America

David Azerrad:

The Back Row is Arnade’s name for the parts of the country that are poor and “rarely considered or talked about beyond being a place of problems.” Some are black, some are white; some rural, some urban. All are populated by those who could not or would not leave their dying neighborhoods in pursuit of the American Dream (as defined by those in the Front Row among whom Arnade used to live).
Today, they are stuck “living in a banal world of hyperefficient 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.”
In retelling their stories, Arnade lets his subjects speak for themselves. The book is mostly composed of excerpts from the conversations he had with those stuck in the Back Row, along with numerous photographic portraits: some quite haunting, others quite touching. Dignity will make a powerful impression on all those who read it.
We meet Takeesha, a drug-addicted prostitute who lives with her husband Steve, who is sober, on the streets of Hunts Point in the South Bronx. In Bakersfield, California, we meet Jeanette, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who lives and preaches at the Full Gospel Lighthouse Church to a Hispanic congregation. In the parking lot of the Walmart in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, we meet Paul, who supplements his disability benefits by doing lawn work and proudly flies a Confederate flag on the back of his truck. We meet Henry, 84, and Winston, 79, two retired African Americans who migrated north from the Mississippi Delta as young men and today spend their days at the McDonald’s in Milwaukee’s North Side.
It is hard to see what unites such different and diverse people. In Arnade’s Back Row, one finds prostitutes, drug addicts, ghetto thugs, but also retirees, Somali immigrants, hard-working people, and churchgoers. What they all have in common, according to Arnade, is “a sense of having been left behind, of being forgotten—or, even worse, of being mocked and stigmatized by members of the world who are moving on and up with the GDP.”
Later in the book, he puts it even more poignantly: “Much of the back row of America, both white and black, is humiliated.” They either directly feel the contempt of the Front Row if they are white (the elites being too reverential vis-à-vis minorities ever to directly criticize them), or they clearly see that the things they hold dear are viewed with contempt by those running the country. As Angelo Codevilla already observed in The Ruling Class, the “dismissal of the American people’s intellectual, spiritual, and moral substance is the very heart of what our ruling class is about.”
Those in the Back Row ultimately do not share the values of those in the Front Row, namely “getting more education and owning more stuff.” They are not obsessed with economic growth, credentials, and upward mobility. The rat race doesn’t appeal to them.