The elite’s ‘luxury beliefs’ about privilege spare no thought for ordinary people like you and me

Rob Henderson grew up in foster care in LA before studying at Yale
Rob Henderson grew up in foster care in LA before studying at Yale - Carmen Hui Jing Lim

I grew up poor, moving between foster care homes in LA county, before I encountered the middle class in the military, and later found myself ensconced in affluence at Yale. My story would be incomplete without reflecting on these different groups.

My views have been fashioned by the hardships I’ve encountered and the lessons I’ve derived from them: foster care, extreme instability, divorces, separations, gaining parents, losing parents, gaining siblings, losing siblings, and all of the pain, numbness, thrill-seeking, violence, and substance abuse that results.

Throughout these experiences, I learnt a lot about those who sit at or near the apex of that ladder, which led me to develop the concept of “luxury beliefs” – ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class at little cost, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes.

When I was in foster care, doctors, psychologists, social workers, and teachers would often use the word “troubled” to describe me and the other kids who were overlooked, abandoned, abused, or neglected. For as long as I could remember, I felt a constant undercurrent of throbbing rage, along with anxiety and shame for being abandoned – for being unwanted.

I went to Yale to major in psychology, but my generative curiosity soon overflowed the boundaries of my degree. In my attempt to understand class distinctions, I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about class divides and social hierarchies and compared what I’d learnt with my experiences on campus.

Yale University, Lawrance Hall
Yale University, Lawrance Hall - Gabriella Borter

Gradually, I would learn the tastes and values of the group that I had not fully joined. I managed to piece together the luxury beliefs concept from my observations and readings to understand what I was seeing.

In the past, people displayed their membership in the upper class with their material accoutrements. But today, luxury goods are more accessible than before. This is a problem for the affluent, who still want to broadcast their high social position. But they have come up with a clever solution: the affluent have decoupled social status from goods and reattached it to beliefs.

Denizens of prestigious institutions are even more interested than others in prestige and wealth. For many of them, that drive is how they reached their lofty positions in the first place. Fueling this desire, they’re surrounded by people just like them – their peers and competitors are also intelligent status-seekers. They persistently look for new ways to move upward and avoid moving downward.

It’s impossible to say that every individual in a particular class or category has the exact same features across the board. Still, graduates of elite universities generally occupy the top quintile of income, often wield outsized social influence, and are disproportionately likely to hold luxury beliefs that undermine social mobility.

For example, a former classmate at Yale told me “monogamy is kind of outdated” and not good for society. I asked her what her background was and if she planned to marry. She said she came from an affluent family, was raised by both of her parents, and that, yes, she personally intended to have a monogamous marriage – but quickly added that marriage shouldn’t have to be for everyone. She was raised in a stable two-parent family, just like the vast majority of our classmates. And she planned on getting married herself. But she insisted that traditional families are old-fashioned and that society should “evolve” beyond them.

My classmate’s promotion of one ideal (“monogamy is outdated”) while living by another (“I plan to get married”) was echoed by other students in different ways. Some would, for instance, tell me about the admiration they had for the military, or how trade schools were just as respectable as college, or how college was not necessary to be successful. But when I asked them whether they would encourage their own children to enlist or become a plumber or an electrician rather than apply to college, they would demur or change the subject.

'My classmates promoted one ideal while living by another': A protester holds a 'Defund The Police' placard outside Downing Street, 2021
'My classmates promoted one ideal while living by another': A protester holds a 'Defund The Police' placard outside Downing Street, 2021 - SOPA Images

Top universities are also crucial for induction into the luxury belief class. Take vocabulary. Your typical working-class American could not tell you what heteronormative or cisgender means. But if you visit an elite college, you’ll find plenty of affluent people who will eagerly explain them to you. When someone uses the phrase “cultural appropriation”, what they are really saying is, “I was educated at a top college.”

Only the affluent can afford to learn strange vocabulary, because ordinary people have real problems to worry about. The chief purpose of luxury beliefs is to indicate the believer’s social class and education. When an affluent person expresses support for defunding the police, drug legalisation, open borders, looting, or permissive sexual norms, or uses terms like “white privilege”, they are engaging in a status display. They are trying to tell you, “I am a member of the upper class.”

White privilege is the luxury belief that took me the longest to understand, because I grew up around a lot of poor white people. Affluent white college graduates seem to be the most enthusiastic about the idea of white privilege, yet they are the least likely to incur any costs for promoting that belief. Rather, they raise their social standing by talking about their privilege. In other words, upper-class white people gain status by talking about their high status.

Henderson: 'When an affluent person expresses support for drug legalisation...they are engaging in a status display'
Henderson: 'When an affluent person expresses support for drug legalisation...they are engaging in a status display' - Chris Jackson

When policies are implemented to combat white privilege, it won’t be Yale graduates who are harmed. Poor white people will bear the brunt. The upper class promotes abolishing the police or decriminalising drugs or white privilege because it advances their social standing, not least because they know that the adoption of those policies will cost them less than others.

The logic is akin to conspicuous consumption: if you’re a student who has a large subsidy from your parents and I do not, you can afford to waste $900 and I can’t, so wearing a Canada Goose jacket is a good way of advertising your superior wealth and status. Proposing policies that will cost you as a member of the upper class less than they would cost me serves the same function. Advocating for sexual promiscuity, drug experimentation, or abolishing the police are good ways of advertising your membership of the elite because, thanks to your wealth and social connections, they will cost you less than me.

Today, I am immensely grateful for how my life has turned out. Really, it feels like I’ve woken up from a nightmare. People have told me that my story has brought them to tears. That’s never been my intention – I don’t want pity. I’m one of the lucky ones. There are many kids who have suffered far more. Some of them never recover from what they’ve endured. I’ve lost touch with most of my high school friends, but here is the last of what I know of how their lives turned out.

My friend Cristian has been released from prison and, as of three years ago, was unemployed. Tyler cleans carpets for a living. Two years ago, he posted an Instagram photo of himself with a facial disfigurement because he had wrecked his motorcycle again. I recently told him he’s not a criminal anymore, he’s a “justice-involved person” (a replacement term suggested by the luxury belief class). He replied, “Yeah, OK, and you’re not a college grad anymore. You’re a ‘classroom-involved person’.” It’s possible that my friends were never going to go to college. But if they’d had different upbringings, they wouldn’t have wound up in prison.

Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class by Rob Henderson (Forum). Buy now for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514