Robert K. Henderson is a doctoral candidate in psychology at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge who has written extensively on social class. He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the admissions process at elite colleges, luxury beliefs, and how they apply to America’s status system.
You coined the term “luxury beliefs” as a new way of looking at America’s status system. What does it mean?
Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while inflicting costs on the lower classes.
One example of a luxury belief is “defund the police.” A 2020 survey found that the wealthiest Americans showed the strongest support for defunding the police. Since then, murder rates in the U.S. have soared. The poor—who were least supportive of defunding the police—have been the primary victims. The poor reap what the luxury-belief class sows.
I developed the concept after interacting with students and graduates of elite universities, and reading classic texts by Thorstein Veblen, Pierre Bourdieu, Paul Fussell, and others.
In the past, the wealthy displayed their social rank with physical status symbols. As trendy clothing and other material goods become more accessible and affordable, less status attached to them. Luxury beliefs have arisen as a new status symbol.
In a recent essay, you wrote about your misgivings about the trend among elite universities of eliminating or minimizing standardized testing in favor of personal essays about overcoming adversity. What’s wrong with that approach?
Elite universities have decided to focus on adversity narratives to identify talented or extraordinary applicants. But ironically, the most well-off accentuate their marginalization more fluently. Truly disadvantaged people often have difficulty communicating their hardships in a way that the gatekeepers of elite institutions can understand.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that a recent study from Stanford found that college essay content correlates even more closely with family income than SAT scores. Presumably, applicants from affluent families are particularly adept at using the “right” buzzwords, slogans, and accounts of victimhood that please admissions committees.
Standardized tests are more objective than essays. A kid from a low-income background can more easily ace the SAT than master the tastes, conversational styles, and ever-evolving etiquette of the luxury-belief class.
On the one hand, as you write, schools are looking for applicants who propel themselves above their circumstances through personal initiative, and yet universities are now steeped in ideologies that emphasize how the marginalized are passive victims of their circumstances. How does this tension resolve itself? Or is the tension even felt?
One possibility is that this tension encourages a form of duplicity. Applicants may claim that systemic forces are working against them while simultaneously demonstrating how special they are for rising above those impediments. This could cultivate a potent blend of victimhood and superiority.
Often, it seems like people who are relatively fortunate stress their marginalization by co-opting the suffering of truly disadvantaged individuals. They then tell the most extreme version of what might potentially reflect reality, given whatever discernible characteristics they happen to share with those who have been historically mistreated.
Encouraging victimhood while rewarding those who claim to have risen above it also reinforces the existing system, such that the most advantaged people will continue to occupy the most elite institutions while thinking of themselves as somehow beleaguered. This in turn enables them to abdicate the responsibility that should come with immense privilege.
What’s the best book you read last year?
Tough to pick just one. Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng is definitely one of the best. It’s a haunting memoir written by a woman who was wrongfully imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution in China. The events themselves are heart-wrenching, and the way Cheng describes the Communist regime’s psychological manipulation is both disturbing and illuminating.
Others books I enjoyed are Alchemy by Rory Sutherland, about the limits of human rationality and the importance of tinkering and experimentation; The Status Game by Will Storr, about how the desire for social esteem explains much of human behavior; and Codes of the Underworld by Diego Gambetta, about how criminals (and noncriminals) communicate information and establish trust under conditions of uncertainty.
You have a book of your own coming out this year, right? What can you tell us about it?
My forthcoming memoir is on track to come out late this year. I share my recollections of growing up in foster homes in Los Angeles in the 1990s, the trouble I’d get into as a kid, and the steps and missteps I took on my path to escape the drama and disorder of my youth. The book also contains some cultural commentary, reflections on childhood instability, and my observations about social class in America.