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The Making of an American Aristocracy
An Interview with Shamus Khan

by Pauline Peretz , 4 May 2011

How can the United States sustain the paradox of being a nation founded on freedom and equality while tolerating such levels of inequalities that many diagnose a return to the Gilded Age? For Shamus Khan, the answer lies in the social openness of some key American institutions: under the lure of diversity, they make the economic power of an elite whose privilege is based on merit rather than birth acceptable.

Shamus Khan is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology of Columbia University.

He is the author of Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School (Princeton University Press, 2010) and is currently working on a book entitled Exceptional. Elite New York and the history of American inequality.

He is one of the co-founders of an international research network devoted to the understanding of elites.

Looking at Society From the Top

Books & Ideas: Traditionally, American social scientists have been more prone to studying outsiders than the upper class, certainly because of methodological difficulties, but also out of social empathy and some form of hope to contribute to alleviating poverty. Were you encouraged to study society from the top, and more specifically the elite, by the increase of inequalities in American society? To what extent did your personal experience play a role in your choice?

Shamus Khan: I think there would be three factors to this. The first is empirical. Almost all the increases in inequality in the United States over the last 40 years are explained by wealth seizure by the rich, not the declining conditions of the poor. It is not the case that poor people are getting poorer, it it the case that rich people are getting richer. We can’t really think of inequality in terms of poverty. Second, there is a theoretical justification: many models of inequality are relational, this would be consistent with Bourdieu’s model of production of inequality but also with the American stratification school. But we almost always study one side of the relation, not the other one, especially in the United States. So I thought of my research as supplementing the theoretical model. And the third explanation would be personal: I grew up in a wealthy American household, but not a tremendously rich household. I am a child of immigrants who themselves were poor but came to to the U.S. with high degrees of education and became wealthy. And I entered into a school, St. Paul’s, which is one of the most elite boarding schools in the country if not the world. It has an endowment of 500 million dollars and 500 students, so about a million dollars in endowment per student. It is really entranched in American power. John Kerry who ran for President went to St. Paul’s; in his graduating class were also Robert Mueller, the head of the FBI, along with a series of other extremely prominent people. And, unlike France where to speak of an aristrocrat legacy is not introducing something alien and foreign into the academic discourse, in the United States, the notion of aristrocacy is largely absent. We mobilize a sort of Tocquevillian narrative of our position in the world as being exceptional as we don’t have an aristocracy. I had spent time at an institution that was fairly aristocatic in terms of its history in the United States and I wanted to highlight some of the ways in which some forms of aristocracy are highly present in the United States and have been, during different historical moments in time. My goal is to try and emphasize the knots of foreign or alien origins of American inequality relative to some of the European models.

The Making of the “New Elite”

Books & Ideas: In your book devoted to the elite high school St. Paul’s, you explain the making of the elite. You identify a “new elite”, more diverse than the older one. You show that it does not have a sense of self-entitlement, that it has a more individualistic conception of its position. Would you say that this new definition of privilege based on merit rather than birth makes the elite status more acceptable to a society based on equality?

Shamus Khan: In the United States, when we think of equality, we think of diversity, particularly more recently. These last 50 years, a lot of what we think about when we think of inequality is not class but race. This comes out of a very particular political legacy. If we look at our elite institutions, they have actually responded to pressures coming out of this legacy. Columbia University has transformed itself in the last years into one of the most diverse academic spaces you can imagine. The two incoming classes over the last two years have been “majority minority”, meaning more than half of the students are not white. It is a startling transformation. At the same time, inequality has increased quite tremendously in the United States. I use the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez who have done some wonderful work demonstrating increases in inequality in the US, showing that in terms of inequality we are pretty much where we were in the Gilded Age. [1] This presents an intellectual curiosity to American social scientists because we typically associate increases in inequality with increases in social closure. Wealthy people, elites, have control over resources, and they begin to exclude others from that ressource and hoard it. They build “moats and fences” around social resources. But we would be hard pressed today to argue that elites have been building these huge moats and fences around resources. If we look at race, for example, we see that elites and elite institutions are far more inclusive than they once were, even radically so. So the question becomes: can we have more open social institutions with large increases in inequality?

Part of my explanation of this is the “new elite”. Whereas the old elite felt entitled, people who saw their legacy as sufficient to explain their position and their belonging to an institution, I describe the new elite as privileged. They find ways to obscure the way in which these privileges are socially constituted by creating individualistic accounts of their position. And actually, some of the increased diversity of institutions like St. Paul’s and Columbia support that narrative. We have such residential segregation in the United States that people who come to St. Paul’s or Columbia from wealthy backgrounds come from towns and areas that are totally homogeneous. Also getting into an elite institution is extremely difficult even for privileged kids (Columbia’s acceptance rate is below 8%). So they have to beat out a whole bunch of their peers to get to these places. When they arrive, they are presented with a campus that looks very different from their home environment. It provides an anecdotal support for the idea that this institution is a meritocracy, and therefore it was their hard work, their dedication and their inherent skills and their capacities that help to explain how they were able to get to a place like that. And, by extension, it is other people’s laziness, their lack of capacity, the way in which they did not take advantage of opportunities that explain why they are failing. This kind of narrative is only possible in instances where boundaries and borders have evaporated. So what you get is an explanation of outcomes not on the basis of socially constituted outcomes, but rather of individual level outcomes. One of the ironies I talk about in the book is that the Rights Movement of the 1960s effectively argued for this – the principles of collectivity which made groups groups (such as racial principles, gender principles) should not matter in terms of social outcomes. One way to read the Civil Rights Movement is that a group of people got together and argued that the basis of their “groupness” (race) should not inhibit their access to resources or their life chances. And this principle has been extended to suggest that collectivities of any kind are a moral danger. I would say that the people who have most adopted this frame as a group is the elite, and they have done so in many ways to their advantage. One of the keys to understanding how and why this is to the advantage of elites is to look at how unequal institutions like St. Paul’s are. St. Paul’s praises itself for the number of students it has on financial aide – which is around 40 percent. It is pretty good until you realize that St. Paul’s costs 45,000 dollars a year per student. Columbia has about half of its students on aide, but it costs 55,000 dollars a year. It means that half of the student population comes from families that can pay for one of their children as much as what the average American family makes in a year. That means that they are among the top 2-3 percent of American earners. Which means that these are tremendously unequitable institutions. But instead of explaining their position relative to their social advantage, their membership within an upper class, these elites explain it by their hard work and individual skills.

Books & Ideas: To what extent have the democratization of access to culture, but also of the content of culture, contributed to the emergence of this new elite? Would you say that the new elite has lost the previous elite’s concern with cultural distinction?

Shamus Khan: I am not always a defender of Bourdieu, but this is one instance where I will be a defender of Bourdieu. In America the cultural omnivore thesis is quite popular and it is one that I offer up. It is the idea that high status people have gone from being snobs to being omnivores, that they have gone from people with very particular cultural tastes (say a taste for classical music) to people with quite varied tatstes (from classical music to hip hop or rap or rock music, to jazz...). Some have used this observation as evidence that Bourdieu is wrong. But it is not. It is evidence that distinctions can vary across time and place. The new distinction is not exclusion but inclusion, and the way the new elite distinguishes itself is as being the most inclusive, democratic, open. This promotes the view of the world as a kind of space of opportunities in Thomas Friedman’s sense of the flat world. It is the people who see its wideness who are able to be successful. Who are the closest minded people, the most likely to listen to their very small range of things, heavy metal or country music? It is poor people. They are not taking advantage. The new people who are limited in their tastes, who are building moats and fences around themselves, are the poor not the rich. The rich are now this broad consuming group of people. And this helps produce this cultural narrative of their openness, of their egalitarianness, of the ways in which they are quite equitable, and it suggests that they are not creating barriers for other people to enter, because they are simply walking across a whole hosts of areas and seizing opportunities from within them. This cultural dynamic helps support the narrative I suggested earlier. To develop this range of tastes requires resources but also sensibilities that are developped within elites bastions – the sensibility that you are and should be welcome everywhere, that you are an appropriate judge of qualities in just about any context, and that you have the tremendous capacity to ignore boundaries that often limit other people. In other words, you are intoxicated with a sense of your own deep talent. That explains also why you are an omnivore. But again this is located inside you – it is who you are – rather than outside of you, located in institutions that facilitate your being at ease across a whole hosts of contexts, that make it simpler for you to think that you can do anything you wish. These kinds of advantages only emerge in institutions that have resources to provide you with access to a range of things and can help to produce this kind of narrative of the inherent capacity of their members. If I were to study a school in Harlem, the narrative would not be about the capacities of students, but rather about constraints put on students, about rules; those confinements have a large impact on students every day, they affect their sense of what is available to them.

Democratic Inequality

Books & Ideas: In Privilege [2], you reflect upon the ethnic and racial opening of St. Paul’s, out of its concerns for both legitimacy and better representation. How can it remain the same, pursuing the same objective – producing tomorrow’s elite –, while opening to diversity? Should not one see the end of the practice of exclusion as a way to make the perpetuation of privilege more acceptable?

Shamus Khan: Absolutely. But I think there is a second piece to that. College admission has gotten much more competitive and a place like St. Paul’s needs to have very high rates of admission to colleges. Minority students from St. Paul’s are incredibly attractive candidates to places like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, because they have proven that they are able to navigate elite spaces successfully. One of the anxieties that these schools have is that if they take a poor student in their classrooms, the student won’t be successful – he or she will fail, have social difficulties. If you can make it through St. Paul’s, which is a much more intense social experience – it is only 500 students, it is in Concord, New Hampshire, a rural area, and everyone (faculty and students) lives on campus (all the faculty, all students), then going to Harvard, Columbia... is an easier experience. So there is also an element of St. Paul’s being able to maintain some of its ties to the secondary elite institutions through the integration of non-white students into its student body.

Books & Ideas: Is not it too simplistic to equate diversity with equality?

Shamus Khan: Diversity is a necessary condition for equality, it is not sufficient. In the United States, we experienced periodical eruptions of class movements. There is a long history of class movements in the United States, often ignored. May Day used to be an American holiday. It is not as if we had never had a language of class, it is just that this language has been largely absent since about the 1950s. In the direct postwar period, there was a lot of mobility in the United States. The idea of class politics as being a key element of American politics does not make that much sense when you have lower levels of equality and higher levels of mobility. Class is not a resonant category. And coming out of that moment, we did not go through a class awakening. Instead we went through an experience of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement which were profound and necessary moments in American history, but became very much how we approached and thought about equality.

An American Exceptionalism?

Books & Ideas: The increase in inequality comes somehow as a shock after the post WWII belief in a classless society. Was this time an exception in American history? Are we today back to normalcy? Or are we experiencing an unequaled concentration of power at the very top?

Shamus Khan: The book I am working on now makes this exact argument. Its title is « Exceptional. Elite New York and the history of American inequality ». It is a play off of the idea of American exceptionalism, a term coined by Tocqueville but then taken up quite regularly by a series of American academics. In 1906, Werner Sombart wrote Why is there no Socialism in the United States? More recently, Seymour Martin Lipset, perhaps the most famous example, has written about the absence of a socialist party in the United States. [3] Kim Voss’s work has been a very useful corrective in helping us recognize that actually some of the greatest levels of labor unrest in the world in the late 19th century took place in the United States. [4] In my book, I am taking a broader view across a whole host of times. I am saying that what makes America exceptional is not so much the absence of class politics, but the ways in which, across historical moments, Americans have been able to combine comparatively high levels of social openness with comparatively high levels of inequality. That’s the character of America in my view, especially in looking at the New York elite. Tocqueville was not wrong when he came here, it was surprising how socially open America was, but Tocqueveille was wrong in so far as he thought that we were marked by fundamental equality, in fact the American society was a highly inequitable society. Time and again, when you look at the history of the United States, you see the phenomenon I am describing today: comparatively open social institutions with increases in overall levels of inequality.

The second play on the idea of exceptionalism is that the view of the American dream is one built on a truly exceptional moment in American history, which is the postwar period, 1947 to 1968 or 1971 if you want to be generous. This is somehow the culmination of America, the moment that we were coming to in our long 300-year history up to this point, a moment of low levels of inequality and high levels of mobility. If we compare it to other moments, it is just a tiny blip in what is otherwise a national history marked by tremendous degrees of inequality and struggles over inequalities. In some ways, I read what we are seeing today as back to normalcy – America is a highly inequitable nation.

Books & Ideas: How would you characterize the American elite as opposed to the European elite, in terms of formation and perpetuation of privilege (in particular the role of taxation), but also in terms of ideology?

Shamus Khan: America has not always had low levels of taxation. Through the 1960s, we actually had really high levels of taxation. The marginal tax rate on the highest levels of the highest earners was 91%, which is astonishing. Nevertheless, there is such a dominant discourse in the US about how taxation is untenable. In the Gilded Age, these taxation levels did not exist, which allowed for high levels of inequality. Today, the decline of taxation is directly related to the increase in inequality.

But I also think that the deep commitment to economic ways of thinking that are based upon evolutionary models is incredibly important in explaing the last 150 years of American social life. Spencer as a political thinker was never so powerful and favored than among the Gilded Age elite. Rockefeller and Carnegie deeply believed in Spencer’s ideas, more so than the British did. So what was often thought as laissez-faire economics was also a view of economic life as “the survival of the fittest”. The requirement of wealth creation as a central element of social good becomes deeply embedded in a much more progress-oriented narrative that resonated with some of the earlier elements of American life, like the idea of the US as a beacon on the hill, a beacon to Europe. This religious imagery combined with this evolutionary ideology has deeply enmeshed itself in American sensibility and fabric, in our cultural mores.

Interestingly, Carnegie who was a firm believer in Spencer, also believed in the moral necessity of giving away all of one’s money. The elite believed that they were the fittest, and therefore money should be collected in their hands, and they were also the fittest, not the government, to appropriate it adequately. This narrative has revived with a vengeance in the US today, and to tremendous praise, particulary in the characters of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who have been calling upon billionaires to give away at least half their money. Taxation could be another way for billionaires to give away half their money. It would not be voluntary, and it would not help to further undermine the view that the state is always bad, but it is not a viable cultural sensibility in the American answer.

Inclusion: a Powerful Narrative

Books & Ideas: The opposition between New York and the rest of the country largely lies in the role of its bourgeoisie as shown by historian Sven Beckert apropos of 19th century New York. [5] In terms of wealth and power, New York definitely stands out, as it is still the center of world trade and finance, but also in terms of culture and art. The economic elite (the Rockefellers, the Morgans, Bloomberg, etc.) have played a unique role in governing the city. That paradoxically happened in a city that is the most diverse in terms of background and ethnicity. Are New York elite still exceptional today with regards to the rest of the country?

Shamus Khan: Methodologically, when you choose to study the elite, you don’t choose to study a representative space. Representativeness is not a desirable quality in understanding the elite. In fact, you want them to be non representative. You are looking at a tiny portion of the population. But New York has a lot of what’s going on in the kinds of processes I am interested in, in a very small dense space. The wealthiest census tract in the country is in New York City – it is a census tract wherein the average family has an income of over 180,000 dollars. The poorest census tract in the United States is also in New York, it is where an average family has an income of less than 10,000 dollars a year. These are extremes of poverty and wealth. These people are part of the same city, often aligned on the same sense of services; they live in worlds incredibly far apart but also incredibly close to one another.

The formation of the American bourgeoisie happened in a context where, on the one hand, you have new men (the Carnegies, Rockefellers...) making tremendous amounts of money, but also a context in which masses and masses of immigrants start pouring into Manhattan and Brooklyn through Ellis Island, people seen as very alien and very dangerous – Italians, Poles, Jews... They created a flight of the New York elite from Lower Manhattan. This is the time when places like the Upper East Side are being formed and a clear consolidation of this group as a kind of class happens, as Beckert very nicely shows, beginning to form cultural institutions, like the opera, theaters, education institutions, like boarding schools and Ivy League schools, to consolidate itself. I fully concur with Beckert: New York becomes the place where the national upper class is formed, where class consolidation of the bourgeosie is happening during the Gilded Age. What has not been discussed as much is where rich people’s money came from. What Piketty and Saes do in their 2003 Quarterly Journal of Economics piece is look at the constitution of the incomes of the 10 % richest people, broken down in little percentages. What is fascinating is that in 1918, the top 10-5 % of earners rely upon employment for their earnings, very few rely upon capital. Yet, quite differently, most of the top 0.1 % rely purely on capital for their earnings (and wealth). This is a Marxian story, a story in which at the end of the Gilded Age it was ownership of durable goods – typically a factory – that explained the position of the elite. In my view, this creates a cultural sensibility – one is embedded in social positions with other people who work in those spaces, one is part of a group, a class.

Today, the richest of the richest are still more likely to own capital, but they are much more likely then their Gilded Age brethren to rely upon incomes of various sources, particularly employment. This creates a sensibility in the elite where they begin to think of themselves as not that different from other people – they earn a paycheck, even if theirs is much higher than the paycheck of other people. This is much more a Weberian story. They are not constituted by their ownership of things but instead their control of money in the bank. The Gilded Age elite knew that they were in a structurally different location in the economy from the average person. It created conditions where they understood themselves as a group or a class. Today, there is almost a classlessness of the elite – they belong to a group that is the same as the rest of America. It is just that their talents, capacities, skills are that much more valuable to the rest of us. I am not suggesting here that there is a decline in collective actions among elites, that they don’t have interests that they push forward. What I am arguing is that this cultural sensibility has huge impacts on their orientation to self and their interpretations of others – which influences how they think about and respond to social inequalities. They don’t consider themselves as a class. Looking back at the 19th century, when they moved from Lower Manhattan to Upper Manhattan, New York elite brought their armory with them. It was a place where they could train a regiment, in the event of class warfare. Today’s elites have similar things, they have gated communities, doormen in their buildings… However, these modes of protectionism are not elements of class struggle but simply something quite different that is embedded within their class position. I argue that they are a class, even though they don’t conceive of themselves as a class.

The exclusionism that emerged in the Gilded Age was mobilized to justify high levels of inequality. The evolutionary ethic was one of the key elements in the mobilizing and explaining of inequalities. In contrast, today, the inclusionary narrative is used to justify really high levels of inequality. Many of today’s billionaires respond to the popular sentiments of non-elites of their day, mobilized those to deploy power, to extract wealth in ways that allows them to become wealthier. They do that through the languages of inclusion, diversity, merit and skill. In some ways, I do resent contemporary elites more than I do the old elites, because they have duped all of us. They have seized upon emancipatory cultural categories and mobilized them for individualistic and exclusionary aims. This is why I see them as a quite dangerous elite, as compared to those who were quite explicit in the ways they excluded.

Dossier's Articles

Dossier(s) :
To Have or Not to Have

by Pauline Peretz, 4 May 2011

Further reading

  • Link to a presentation of Shamus Khan’s book on Princeton University Press’ site: Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, Princeton University Press, 2010.

To download the introduction:

  • Links to Shamus Khan’s site, and to the blog he contributes to along with other American sociologists.

To quote this article :

Pauline Peretz, « The Making of an American Aristocracy. An Interview with Shamus Khan », Books and Ideas , 4 May 2011. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team (redaction at We will get back to you as soon as possible.


[1Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saes, “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118 (1), 2003, 1-39.

[2Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, Princeton University Press, 2010.

[3Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, New York, W.W. Norton, 1996.

[4Kim Voss, The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century, Cornell University Press, 1993.

[5Sven Beckert, The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001

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