Several weeks ago, I attended a conversation between photographer and writer Chris Arnade and University of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen. The discussion focused on Arnade’s recent book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (Sentinel, 2019).

Arnade spent several years traveling across America, visiting neighborhoods, communities, and places hollowed out by de-industrialization and globalization. Along the way, he met the people calling those forgotten spaces home–individuals tacitly and explicitly labelled losers, deplorables, takers, undeserving, and failures by our nation’s economic, political, and cultural elites. Dignity is the result.

Deneen and Arnade explored a key concept of the book: this was the division between what Arnade calls “front row” and “back row” America. “Front row” America possesses an unflagging sense of independence, success, and entitlement. Think Silicon Valley tech gurus, Beltway insiders, or–a bit closer to home–Upper West Manhattanites. “Back row” America expresses dependency, desperation, and fatalism. Think Rust Belt workers, late-night McDonald’s customers, and Hunts Point hustlers. “Front row” America shapes the rules and defines the rewards of contemporary American life. “Back row” America fails to measure up and receives the punishment.

Chris Arnade, The Beauty of Sprawl (Courtesy of Chris Arnade)

Deneen recounted a recent visit with his family to a town in Michigan. While sitting in a local park, he noticed a bench dedicated to a physician for his civic contributions. Today, would a talented and aspiring young person remain in rural Michigan? Would he or she contribute time, talent, and treasure to its religious, public, and cultural life? Not likely. 

Today, coastal metropolitan regions and certain interior urban hubs (e.g., Austin or Minneapolis-St.Paul) draw the human capital from places such as that Michigan town, weakening its communal fabric and civic resilience. Who remains in such a place? What future awaits it? Its left to back row America. 

Neither Arnade or Deneen presented potential policy solutions to inequality and decay. Instead, they posed questions. Difficult, disturbing questions. The event unsettled me. That might be the point. This gulf between front row and back row defines American public life and threatens its viability.

Once the current pandemic passes, Chris Arnade and other speakers will join us for Red State, Blue City: A Front Row Look at “Back Row America.” (Note: the event originally was scheduled for April 29, 2020.) They and the audience will tussle with the above challenges.

What might we take away from that conversation? 

David Goodwin is an urban historian, author, and Assistant Director of the Center on Religion and Culture.