Recently, I sat down with author and photographer Chris Arnade to discuss his book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. We talked about inequality, class, and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. The ongoing public health emergency has revealed fissures and stress points throughout our society. One key disparity between social classes is an absence of connection and loyalty to community and place displayed by the affluent or–as Arnade would label them–the elite. Arnade observes that the working class are different. 

(Courtesy of Chris Arnade)

The coronavirus response provides clear evidence of the problem. Numerous media outlets have chronicled the well-heeled and the glamorous fleeing the New York metropolitan region–the pandemic hot spot–for more inviting locales in the Hudson River Valley, the Hamptons, or New England. This influx into small towns adds pressure to already strained health and public safety services and increases demand on essential retail outlets, such as grocery stores and pharmacies. More worrisome, the exodus of the urban elite serves as the vector for the coronavirus. As Buzzfeed reported, wealth is “the common denominator” of the virus spreading beyond major urban areas. In late March, NPR found Sun Valley’s airport “packed with private jets.” 

This abandonment of New York and other dense cities by the affluent highlights a glaring disparity: certain Americans possess the resources to pack up and relocate to a second (or maybe even third or fourth) home with plenty of room and green space. Most Americans, however, are sheltering in place sometimes in cramped quarters with little privacy. 

Still, this is not what most troubles me the most. 

What I find particularly unsettling is the utter lack of commitment to a given place demonstrated by many with wealth in American society. By leaving Manhattan for a Long Island beach bungalow or Jersey City for a Hudson Valley home, they are denying any responsibility for acquaintances, neighbors, or friends and effectively refusing membership in a larger community–a community that serves them in good times.

Compare this to the actions of people with lesser means than Arnade’s elite. Struggling local restaurants prepare meals for overworked EMTs. Young people stand in long grocery store lines to pick up food for elderly neighbors. Volunteers stitch together face masks for sleep-deprived nurses.   

Arnade writes about “front row” and “back row” America and urges us to perceive the dignity and the worth of those sitting in the back row. But what does the COVID-19 pandemic tell us about front row Americans? Do they deserve our respect?

Watch our full conversation here:

David Goodwin

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