Arts & Books Books

Meritocracy has failed the underclass

For the poor, McDonald’s is not merely a restaurant but a sort of town square (Chris Arnade)

Steve Larkin on a book that gives a voice to America's 'back row'

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America
By Chris Arnade
Sentinel, 304pp, £25/$18

Books featuring battles between the shift manager at a McDonald’s and people attempting to get free ice and soda from the machine on a hot day are rare. At first, reading about it is charming – behold the indomitable human spirit, devising ingenious stratagems to get the free ice – but it then dawns that the scene is also shocking and horrifying: the people want the free ice from McDonald’s because they have no other way of staying cool and hydrated.

Chris Arnade’s Dignity is full of moments like this from poor, neglected, and left-behind parts of the United States. He started in 2011 by walking into Hunts Point in the Bronx – because the people around him, his co-workers at his job in finance and the people in his neighbourhood, said it was dangerous, poor and not worth going to. But what he found and the people he met drew him in, and eventually he made the decision to see whether Hunts Point was unique or if other places in America were similar.

What he found, and what the people who lived there told him, were the things his co-workers could have told him about, such as poverty, drugs and racism. But he found more than that alone. In the world of the “back row”, Arnade’s term for those who lack the connections, resources, degrees, and other structural advantages from which the upper classes – the front row – benefit, McDonald’s is not merely a fast food restaurant but a sort of town square, where people can get cheap food, clean water and free Wi-Fi with people they know. Faith is not something that happens for an hour on Sundays but “the reality and a source of hope”. Hometowns are not places people leave when an opportunity arises, but places where they stay because they have no reason or desire to leave.

Having seen all this, Arnade concludes that the meritocratic system that produces the current elite has not only failed the back row but also provided a justification for failing them: believing that the current system makes its decisions on merit alone implies that those who suffer under it must lack merit. When the front row says to the back row “just move” or “learn to code”, they betray their lack of concern and their lack of understanding, reinforcing the damage that has already been done.

While Arnade’s analysis is insightful and cutting, the true power of the book comes from his reliance on the words of the people he spoke to. Long quotes and snippets of interviews let the people in the book directly describe their lives and give voice to their situations: they seem almost to speak directly to the reader, as if given a chance to explain who they are and what they do in a few sentences.

In addition to the words, the book contains many pictures of people Arnade met along his travels, included both in chunks between the chapters and scattered throughout the prose. Even more than his writing, the pictures seem natural and true to life, conveying no sense of distance or alienation. Many of the people in the pictures are looking right into the camera – right at the reader, and the reader’s own eyes can see what Arnade saw.

As with almost any book of this sort, the conclusion ends in an attempt at offering solutions. Arnade admits he doesn’t have much besides “wishy-washy” ideas about the importance of listening and understanding. Listening and understanding is good, but saying so at the end seems anticlimactic. It comes right after Arnade tells us about his visit to his own hometown, Dade City, Florida, and after an entire book detailing the almost unimaginable material and spiritual damage that has been done to the underclass in America.

But the fact that the conclusion sounds off reveals why the book as a whole succeeds. Its aim is not to identify a problem and then pose a solution: its aim is to tell the stories of people whose voices would not have otherwise been heard. Dignity is not really a book about the lower class or those left behind. It is about Jim and Randy, two retirees who have lived all their lives in one county because they never had a desire to leave their home. It is about Fowisa, a Somali woman who moved to Lewiston, Maine, from Atlanta because she wanted “a community that was small and safe”. It is about Takeesha, who describes herself as “a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God”.

It is a book about many other people like them, all of whom Arnade manages to bring to life in his vignettes. They transcend their labels and their classifications and their stereotypes to show that, despite being overlooked and neglected by the ruling class, they are still here, still just as human as those who have overlooked them.

Steve Larkin is an editorial intern at the US Catholic Herald