Dignity during a pandemic: A conversation with Chris Arnade
The gap between front row and back row America feels as wide as ever
Chris Arnade’s Dignity is a moving reminder of the power of listening. Published last year, the book captures in words and photographs parts of America that are often overlooked. Arnade, a former Wall Street Master of the Universe with a PhD in Astrophysics, left his life on what he calls America’s “front row” and headed to the “back row”, spending time with the homeless, the addicted, the desperate and the struggling everywhere from the Bronx to rural Texas. He dodged the clichés about ‘real’ America, exercised radical, nonjudgmental empathy and delivered an essential account of the lives of poor Americans.
In lockdown in Washington, as safe and healthy as I could hope to be, and experiencing Covid-19 as a series of medium-sized inconveniences and intermittent existential dread, while others take on significant physical risk to protect their livelihoods, I keep coming back to Arnade’s front row/back row distinction. America’s divides weren’t exactly hard to spot before the coronavirus arrived. But they are harder to ignore thanks to the pandemic.
I called Arnade, who is sheltering in place in upstate New York, to talk about the back row in the age of Covid-19.
Here is an edited version of our conversation.
What does Covid-19 look like to those Americans on the back row, versus those on the front row?
It’s very different. Covid is a bit like a particle accelerator in physics; it has exposed the inner workings of our society that we don’t look at. There’s a lot of inequality between the front row, who others have called the laptop class, who can work from home, and those who, in my framework, are on the backrow and don’t have that luxury.
But what’s been interesting to see is that the coronavirus is exposing different divides to the framework for my book. The back row has been divided into two groups. There are the people who are essential and so have to work and are being exposed, and then the people who have been fired. And then I would say there’s a third class of people who would dismissively be called the dependencies: people who are on welfare and other things, you know. Their financial life has not changed that much actually, but their physical life has changed a lot.
So I think in aggregate it has obviously been much harder for anyone in the back row than anyone in the front row. In “shelter in place”, “place” does a lot of work and covers a lot of ground. A lot of people I know don’t have a place or the place they have is very hard to shelter in, especially given how complex some of the family dynamics are. We’re talking about apartments with eight people from three different generations with one bathroom, maybe crappy wifi and no green space to go to. So it’s been really tough to see and I’m not surprised to see that the longer this goes on, the more there’s been some pushback against sheltering in place.
Take the protests that there have been about the lockdown. A big part of that seems to be basic partisanship, but do you think there’s something else there too? Is there something more interesting going on?
I think there’s a bit of a split — and this is different to the framework I propose in the book — between what I guess I would call the production class and people involved in production, and then those who are removed from it.
The knowledge class in general hasn’t really been hurt or endangered by this to the degree that other people have been. But look at the production class. If you’re in agriculture or you’re in trucking or you’re in what we’re seeing now in Iowa in meatpacking, you know, this has been really, really hard on you both economically and physically. And I think we’re seeing that frustration. Some of the pushback is being politically manipulated. But sheltering in place is just so hard for so many people that I’m really not surprised that you’re seeing this degree of pushback against it.
It’s hard. Like everybody else, I can’t go out and do things. I can’t do what I usually do which is actually interview people, but it seems to be the small business community that is leading the charge here. They’re the ones who are getting crushed by this. I think of them as production people, you know, and I think it’s really, really hard. I think Covid has raised awareness of how much the knowledge class, the front row, overlooks the value of production and the people involved in production.
What about America’s homeless population? Have you been in touch with any of the people in your book, or that you came across, who are homeless? How are they dealing with Covid-19?
I have and it’s really difficult. There’s a dark humour to some of it, I hate to say. Some of them get by by stealing and they can’t because the shops are closed so they can’t steal anymore. But I keep in touch with maybe five of them from my book and since my days in the Bronx. One of the couples is still panhandling and living in a car with a dog. Another woman that was homeless, found an apartment from the city. Another one is living in a shelter but there’s a problem with her husband, so she had to flee and of course she was sleeping rough for a while. I tried to find her an additional home, but the resources right now aren’t there.
Generally, their lives are not really changing. She still has to go to her methadone clinic every day and take the bus. So nobody is really changing their behaviour because they really can’t.
People who are homeless are going to get covid. It’s as simple as that, to me. I would be stunned if it doesn’t happen. And you know, some of them are going to die. I think you’re seeing that in the numbers already. When you see those images of people being buried on Hart Island those are usually people who died without papers. Those are often homeless people.
As a Brit in America, I’m supposed to come from this society completely obsessed with class. America likes to think it is the opposite, and chooses to ignore its class divides as much as it can. Do you think a crisis like this, when there are really obvious differences in how people experience it, will change the way Americans think about those differences?
I think so. But one of the things I’m very wary of is making predictions that fit what I believed beforehand. I certainly feel like a lot of divides have been exposed by this damn pandemic that are literally killing people. These are divides that are fatal. The difficult thing about predicting these things is that the divides are all over the place. There are divides between back row and front row and within the back row. There’s the divide between the production/working class poor and the dependent poor. They don’t particularly like each other all the time. I think there are going to be people who, since essential workers are still being exposed, are presumably going to find themselves frustrated with people who are not working. Unfortunately, that division exists.
Hopefully, the front row, the college class and the wealthy reconsider how they view the chain of production and the parts of America that they don’t necessarily have much exposure to or think much about. The people who provide their food, the people who provide their energy, the people who are their soldiers.
There was this ugly narrative that came out of the election of 2016 that was framed around the idea that Hillary Clinton won parts of the country that produced the most. I think she said something like I won the high production parts of the country, I won 60 or 70 percent of GDP or whatever. [Ed. note: In 2018 Clinton said “I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.”] I think it is a really ugly way to frame things. But it’s also an almost colonial attitude. In that way of thinking, these rural areas and the rest of the country are there to provide for us, to build our networks, that we then make money off of, feed us, provide us soldiers and that’s not very important economically, and so somehow those people are lesser.
If anything comes out of the crisis, you know, I hope that the laptop class, the people working from home who have that luxury, recognise what a luxury it is. And recognise how dependent they are on the people who can’t work from home.
You’re hinting at it but it’s more than a left-right thing, isn’t it? There are lessons for the right, for sure. But there are also lessons for the left.
I feel like I have to repeat the lessons for the left as a member of the left because everybody is already repeating the lessons for the right. I hear those ad nauseam and I agree with them. As somebody who supports the working class, it’s awful to see people having to go back into meatpacking plants again, against their will. I find a lot of the draconian processes that deny people support who have become unemployed awful. Although we’ve actually done pretty well this time,I think; far better than I would have predicted.
But on the left one of the things that frustrates me — and why I get mad at my own party and why in some cases I’m not as accepted in my own party — is that intellectual colonialism. They view a lot of the country as beneath them. And anybody without an education, involved in things like the military or food production and agriculture, in the oil industry, for example, as somehow, again, second-class citizens who don’t really provide much.
Do you think that this crisis reveals preoccupations are really secondary to some of the bread and butter economic issues?
I think the left came at identity politics with a good heart. As someone who grew up in the South in the 60s and 70s and whose father worked in civil rights, I know that a lot of good was done, and a lot of evil that needed to be overcome, but at some point it diverged into a kind of moral wristband to say “Well, look what I did, I support minorities and therefore I can’t possibly be an elitist”. And, in doing so, they overlook the fact that while race is a big division in our country, and an awful one, often it is class and education that are as big a division if not bigger. They have to reframe everything in a racial perspective and in doing so they ignore their own economic and cultural privilege.
You don’t have to get out of the Acela corridor to see the inequality that exists in America, you just have to get off the Acela
Front row settings, these knowledge based settings and work environments may look diverse and their neighbourhoods may give the illusion of being diverse. But everybody basically has the same academic background and believes broadly the same things. It’s a way to paper over the fact that they support extremely unequal society and live in extraordinarily unequal cities. Some of the most racially divided cities in the United States are the places where the elite left live. Half of the time on my book was literally spent in the poorest neighbourhood in New York City. You don’t have to get out of the Acela corridor to see the inequality that exists in America, you just have to get off the Acela.
Your book also captures how some of these divides can’t just be captured in a graph or in the numbers. They are social, even spiritual things. I wondered if beyond specific economic changes, you think there is some scope in this crisis for a social wake up call.
That’s right. One of the reasons why the left has a problem with my book is that I try to explain that privilege is not just about money these days. It’s about your social standing. It’s about class. In some senses I think this pandemic exposes that because a lot of people who can work from home are not always making more money than the ones who can’t.
I think of the people who get mad at my framework who are adjunct professors. They say “Wait a second. I’ve got a PHD from Cornell but I’m temping and teaching two to three courses a year at different universities.” And I’m like “Well I agree with you and I understand that is frustrating, but you have a lot more privilege than your pay-check shows. You have a resume. You can complain and people will listen to you. You have an outlet to make your frustrations known. You have the background and the roadmap to pivot to something that pays better. You also probably, not always, but probably, have the same views as people who work in banking.” Not necessarily about politics, but your approach to the concept of what the truth is, your view of faith. You know, it’s hard for someone who is not making a lot of money who is on the left and an adjunct history professor to accept they actually have a lot more in common with a bond trader than a black kid in Milwaukee flipping hamburgers. You may advocate for policies you think help the black kid in Milwaukee flipping hamburgers, but your lived reality is extraordinarily different. And I think that, in many ways, with the notable exception of the healthcare industry, this pandemic is showing you that you can work at home. You’re part of the laptop class.
There’s been some pushback to your book on the left. What does that look like? What’s the tone?
The pushback has been a dismissiveness as being a book about Trump supporters, when it’s not. sixty per cent of the people in the book are minorities and most everybody in the book didn’t vote.
Even so, there’s the claim that I’m an apologist for Trump voters, or that it is a Trump explainer. They don’t make strong arguments. But generally it is just condescending remarks. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that there are two things in my book that are inconvenient to the left. One is I basically say that if you’re educated you have a lot of privilege. I think that’s uncomfortable for a lot of people to hear because they like to think that they don’t have privilege. Number two is the importance of faith. I think that is very uncomfortable to many on the left — to talk about faith and the way that helps people
When they look at the rest of the country, they see it as something to strip mine for talent
When it comes to privilege, I mean, look, I’m an academic myself and I’m also part of the laptop class. So I’m guilty as charged, but I’ve always felt like what I get to do is a luxury — a luxury I’m glad I was able to obtain. I’ve worked enough working-class jobs in my life to know that I’m glad to do what I do, but I’ve never taken what I’ve done as being essential.
When I got to grad school I couldn’t believe my luck I was being paid as a grad student I was being paid $10,000 to drink beer, play softball and think about the universe. I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was. I think I feel like that’s true for a lot of these jobs. I just hope they get a sense of how lucky they are to do them. And to know that they are not “better”, or contributing more than somebody who is out there. One of the things that is frustrating is that the left only seems to feel an allegiance to a certain part of the labour movement. They don’t have a lot of love for people who keep the country together, people in construction, people doing road work, people working on power grids.
Isn’t all of this just a consequence of having meritocracy as the central political idea around which you build things? It breeds a kind of superiority complex.
That is certainly the case, but I think it’s the flip side that is more dangerous. The implication of meritocracy is that if you do it, you deserved it. But, to me, the more damning implication is that if you don’t do it, you don’t deserve it. So it’s basically a way to say there is something secondary or lacking for people who didn’t go to college, who didn’t choose to uproot from their hometown to go to college, to pursue a mobile life, who didn’t want to spend their time reading about the three different Punic Wars.
To me, the educational meritocracy we have makes everybody kind of miserable. And what I find even more frustrating is, when the left — the right has its own problems — when it looks at people on the back row and sees impoverished communities and sees people in towns that are struggling, their way of helping is to demand they become front row. Education, education, education, you know. Go to college, go to school, build a resume. All these things that are basically saying be like us: get on our ladder, your ladder, your framework of wanting to be embedded and staying and producing things, for instance, in building something is somehow lesser. You have to reform yourself and become front row. Against that’s an intellectual colonialism. I’m going to help you as a missionary. Come into your community and I’m going to help you to build a resume and go to college. So I think when they look at the rest of the country, they see it as something to strip mine for talent.
One last question: If you chose to be hopeful at this point in time — I’m not saying you are — what do you see as a potential source of hope in the middle of this crisis?
I would hope that if you’re sitting at home, and were able to stay employed, you don’t have to take a lot of physical risks to stay employed, you would understand some of your privilege and reassess how you spoke about the rest of the country, how you think about the rest of the country. That applies to the right and the left.
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