I recently came across “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America,” a book published this year by Chris Arnade that shines a new light on those in forgotten or misinterpreted places where material wealth may be sparse but faith, honor, place and community are often strong. I first heard about it from local Shafter leader David Franz.
Arnade left his Wall Street career to document poverty and addiction in the Bronx. He interviewed, photographed and befriended homeless addicts; he spent days in drug dens and fast food restaurants. Then he drove across America to compare it to the rest of the country. One of the stops on this tour included Bakersfield.
It intrigued me, of course, to learn that Bakersfield was mentioned, although I’ll admit that I cringed a bit at first. I perked up (and ordered a copy on Amazon immediately) when I read a glowing review of it by another author I highly respect, J.D. Vance. Vance described Dignity as “A profound book …. It will break your heart but also leave you with hope.”
In "Dignity" are images of poor parishioners praying in a tiny Bakersfield church and scenes in a McDonald’s in a blighted area of our town. Talking to these people gave Arnade a new respect for the virtue and resilience of what he calls America's “back row,” those who lack the credentials and advantages of the more privileged. High achievers often view the back row's values as worthless, but Arnade tells another story. Everywhere he visited, including the back alleys of Bakersfield, Arnade found common values: pride of place, hunger for family, yearning for home.
Arnade describes Bakersfield as, statistically, the most back row city in the country due to extremely low education levels. (When compared with similarly sized cities, ours consistently falls near the bottom of lists ranking percentage of residents with a college degree.)
It can’t be ignored. The topic seems to be swirling around in the local ether — in increasingly more news reports, at the top of local politicians’ talking points and in so many of my private conversations. These are discussions about local problems like homelessness, crime, drug addiction, class inequality and what to do about them.
Clearly, we’re not the only community grappling with these issues. A desire to address them explains acclaimed author and Ivy League-educated J.D. Vance’s decision to move to the midwest and start an organization to combat Ohio’s opioid epidemic. It was, perhaps, the least glamorous career move of all his options and a choice that made waves. It’s one that has inspired a lot of others, including myself.
While I don’t equate my own success or sacrifice with that of Vance, my move back to Bakersfield felt bolstered by his writing, including an eloquent piece that struck a chord. “Why I’m Moving Home” was published two years ago in the New York Times. I’ve always felt that the people here are fascinatingly resilient, humble in ways the world does not respect, and often misunderstood. Vance echoed a similar sentiment behind his decision to depart from a big-city, career-climbing path and return to Ohio — Columbus, to be exact.
While Vance and I have taken different approaches to contribute to the places we come from, I feel a strong kinship with him and his mission. As a young professional living in a big city, I increasingly felt pulled to take action to help address my hometown’s “brain drain,” which Vance describes as a uniquely modern form of cultural detachment. This shift creates deep and lasting inequalities between cities flooded with the highly educated and those trying to find a better way to participate in today’s economy.
I relate to Vance’s observation in his Times piece that while “there have always been regional and class inequalities in our society, the data tells us that we’re living through a unique period of segregation.” I hated seeing many of my peers mock or, worse yet, give up on a place that I felt deserved a second look, filled with people worthy of much more respect. Even after more than a decade away, I never lost my own cultural attachment to the Central Valley.
Vance openly explains that it was not an easy choice and it has been a process to accept all the changes that came with moving from a large metropolitan city to a rough-around-the-edges town in his home state of Ohio. He worried about the quality of local public schools for his son and whether his wife could tolerate the unpredictable weather.
I’d imagine it was not easy to reconnect with his roots. A 2017 Brookings Institution report noted that Vance’s popular book, a memoir, "Hillbilly Elegy," is a "raw, emotional portrait of growing up in and eventually out of a poor rural community riddled by drug addiction and instability."
While I feel incredibly lucky that my own personal history does not include the kind of impoverished underpinnings, filled with addiction and family instability such as Vance’s, I see these systemic problems around me every day with long-term effects playing out in our own community.
While America’s back row contains intense and profound struggle, "Dignity" also tells a story of perseverance, resilience, love and, surprisingly, hope.