I tell him I want to write about the challenges faced by the neighborhood, and he laughs, putting a finger gently on my chest. “You going to just turn us into young thugs. They already have turned Sylville into a hoodlum, a gangster. Now move on.”
I come back every day, each time looking for the tall, slender man to try to convince him I am well intentioned, that I got it, that I understand his and his friends’ frustration. On occasional visits, someone around the memorial would let me in, and neighbors would apologize for their skepticism of outsiders, but most of the time the crowd puts up a wall of silence and aggression, telling me to leave Sylville’s memory alone that and this is neither my story nor my story to tell. On my last visit, the tall, slender man approaches me, once again gets in my face, and tells me, “This is not your hood; this is our hood, and the police with their bullets have made this our street.”
Venice Williams, a minister and local community activist, lives blocks away. Her house is a one-floor ranch similar to the houses on the block where Sylville was shot. Her yard is filled with vegetable gardens, whatever space she has available given over to squash, corn, greens, and beans. A small handwritten sign facing the sidewalk welcomes anyone who wants to learn to garden.
She has spent the last few decades helping her neighborhood. Her latest project is a community garden, a massive green space fashioned from an empty lot that was once filled with garbage.
When I ask her about Sylville ’s memorial, she says she wishes those standing guard would reopen the street, cut the music, cut the posturing, but she also understands why they are there: “Our young people are tired of being humiliated by police. Tired of being researched and overanalyzed by journalists and nonprofits. This behavior, the clothing, the music, and sometimes the drugs and violence, this is the only toolbox these kids have. It is one filled with a need for pride and protection.”
PAUL SITS IN HIS TRUCK in the Prestonsburg, Kentucky, Walmart parking lot waiting for his wife, who is shopping in the Goodwill. The parking lot is filled, but it is always filled. No other part of the small town is as constantly busy, as central to the town, as the Walmart plaza. It is so busy that a city police officer is assigned to patrol it on a bicycle.
Prestonsburg is a small, almost entirely white town surrounded by hills mined for coal. Those hills ring the plaza, which lies in a flat space carved out of the hills.
Paul’s left leg is missing, lost to cancer when he was young. He pivots from the cab of the truck to the back edge, swinging his body on the doorframe with his arms. He dropped out of school after freshman year. Most of his time in school had been in special education. “I hated school. I was teased all the time. The other kids called me retard or cripple. I learned to fight them. I had to.”
Now he is on disability benefits, supplementing that on the down-low with lawn care work for a few friends. “The government doesn’t want me working since I get benefits, but I got to work. Nobody can’t work.”
Flying from the back of his truck is a large Confederate flag. It is attached to a rusted pole held in place by a cement block, just behind the cab of his truck. I ask him about it. “I love the flag, because I love fishing and hunting. That is what it means to be from the South, and I am proud of being from the South.”
When I mention that people see the flag as offensive and racist, he replies, “No, sir, that isn’t how I see it. For me, it is about Southern pride.”
MUCH OF THE BACK ROW OF AMERICA, both white and black, is humiliated. The good jobs they could get straight out of high school and gave the stability of a lifelong career have left. The churches providing them a place in the world have been cast as irrational, backward, and lacking. The communities that provided pride are dying, and into this vacuum have come drugs. Their entire worldview is collapsing, and then they are told this is their own fault: they suck at school and are dumb, not focused enough, not disciplined enough.
It is a wholesale rejection that cuts to the core. It isn’t just about them; it is about their friends, family, congregation, union, and all they know. Whole towns and neighborhoods have been forgotten and destroyed, and when they point this out, they are told they should just get up and move (as if anyone can do that) and if they don’t, then they are clearly lazy, weak, and unmotivated.
Everyone wants to feel like a valued member of something larger than themselves. The current status quo doesn’t do that for most of America, because it only understands value in economic forms of meaning. In that world it is all about getting credentials, primarily those gained by education.
The current status quo supports a system that is said to be a meritocracy that allows anyone to rise to the top. To get there you just have to follow a path that weaves through a series of select educational institutions, internships, jobs, and communities.
It is a path that is supposed to be available to everyone regardless of class, race, gender, and sexuality. Yet the path is tightly rationed, with only a few allowed access each year. It is a path requiring information (how to apply, where to apply) and resources (economic and cultural) that few beyond those with the right families born into the right communities have.
For those born into well-connected communities, there is plenty of support and a long history to draw from to navigate the path. For those born outside these communities, there is little guidance. It’s about not just money but having the time and access to needed information. Many children have no idea about the rules, language, and expectations of education (something needed to navigate the path) because they don’t know anyone who went to college. Other children are overwhelmed early with caring for older family members or dealing with the problems of adults. Some children are tasked with parenting the parent—a responsibility that denies them the time to dedicate to their own education.
The educational meritocracy is a well-intentioned system designed to correct massive injustices that enslaved, demeaned, constricted, and ranked people based on the color of their skin, sexuality, and gender. Yet in attempting to correct a nasty and explicit exclusion, we have replaced it with an exclusion that narrowly defines success as all about how much you can learn and then earn.
It is a system that applauds itself for being a meritocracy, allowing anyone to succeed. Implying that those who don’t choose this path, who can’t or don’t pick up and move constantly, who can’t overcome the long odds, are failures and it is their own fault. They are not smart enough. You didn’t make it out because you suck. That is humiliating.
It is all the more frustrating because the new system is still unjust and slanted against minorities, relegating them to second-class citizens, rejecting them at birth. Few minorities are born into communities or families with the right connections and enough resources to navigate the path.
For them, the rejection, frustration, and humiliation aren’t new. They have long been subjected to the cruel trope that they are lesser. Long subjected to demeaning and amoral conditions—legal and illegal, large and small—simply based on their race and place of birth. It has made getting an education and a decent job and building a meaningful life a long shot overcome only with immense focus or immense luck. Then, if they fail at the long odds, they are told it is their fault. Their fault for being lazy, dumb, or whatever the speaker feels they need to be. When they play the long odds because the short odds aren’t available, they are told they are morally weak, prone to illegal behavior, or just dumb.
This has made growing up in places like Selma, Milwaukee’s North Side, East New York, or the Bronx frustrating and humiliating.
People respond to humiliation in different ways, but the most common response is to find a source of pride wherever possible, even if that means in places the status quo doesn’t approve of. It means trying to find a community or activity that values them. For those in the back row, that means a place that doesn’t demand credentials.
Drugs are one of them. Bars, drug traps, and crack houses offer communities that don’t care about your past, your failures, or the color of your skin. As long as you join in, shooting up or taking a hit or swallowing the pills, it is all OK. They also offer a numbing salve from the pain of humiliation. It is a reckless choice, but when your choices are limited, recklessness might be all you have.
Many churches offer that, especially Pentecostal and evangelical faiths. They offer a community with few barriers of entry, regardless of someone’s past. The only requirement is a desire to reform, to live a different way, to accept a set of rules on how you live your life and how you expect others to live. They also provide a place in the larger world. You may not be valued here and now, but you are valued by God, and you will be valued in the afterlife.
Living in the place you grew up doesn’t require credentials. It’s a form of meaning that cannot be measured. Family doesn’t require credentials. Having a child is an action that provides meaning, immediate pride, and a role, especially for the mother, who can find value in raising a family.
There are other non-credentialed forms of community that come with far greater stigmas but can appeal to anyone frustrated enough.
Racial identity is one, providing a community that doesn’t require any credentials beyond being born. Like drugs, it is rightly stigmatized, but also like drugs, it can appeal to the desperate.
Finding pride in racial identity is dangerously easy because it doesn’t demand anything beyond pride in your own group and the capacity to hate. For frustrated whites, it is especially easy because it offers a community with a long (and ugly) historical legacy, boosting its sense of importance. It also offers plenty of scapegoats to punch down at.
In the back row, it can feel as though everyone is sinking, making it the perfect environment for the politics of blame. That all anyone does is throw out a few lifesavers, providing an escape to a small group, makes it even more appealing. That the lifesavers are seen to unfairly go to minorities via affirmative action makes it even easier.
Affirmative action is the right short-term way to try to deal with the long history of structural racism, yet if everyone—black, white, Hispanic—is sinking, it can feel unfair. If it is more about getting a larger share of a shrinking pie than a larger share of a growing pie, then it can inflame hate.
Donald Trump, in 2016, exploited the dangerous and easy appeal of racial identity. He offered frustrated and angry whites a community wrapped in a political movement that didn’t require credentials and claimed to value and, most of all, respect them.
Trump talked their language—rough, crude, and blunt. He addressed their concerns, built around frustration, humiliation, and anger. He acknowledged their pain, offering up easy-sounding solutions. He took their anger and leveraged it by blaming minorities and mocking the front row. He built a community steeped in racism that celebrated being uneducated and white, twisting the need for respect into a demand for revenge.
All of the back row is stagnating, is humiliated, and wants respect. Yet only minorities, African Americans in particular, have suffered from an unending history of racial oppression. Consequently, how they respond is different. They can and do form political movements built around racial injustice and vote for politicians simply because they will support blacks. Racial pride and finding an identity in it is one of the few unique freedoms afforded to minorities.
For whites, given their responsibility and complicity in our country’s history of racism, of segregation, of slavery, finding respect through race is extremely dangerous. Yet with other forms of noncredentialed meaning gone, with other outlets for respect eroded, it has left many with few options other than surging into the ugly, unacceptable territory of outright racism.
Excerpted from Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade, in agreement with Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © Chris Arnade, 2019.