Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Thematic Essays

Capital Inequalities

Veblen, Bourdieu, and the Weight of a Word.

Shamus Khan

Illustration by Ilinca Barsan, courtesy of the artist.

Most parents are keen to confer advantages on their children. Yet wealthy parents are particularly committed to doing so. It is not that they are a different breed. They just happen to live on a cliff, and the steps leading to and from their socioeconomic perch are precariously steep. Today, while the children of the upper and upper-middle classes are likely to end up better off than most other children, they are also likely to make less than their parents did. And given the steepness of the steps, any descent can feel like a free fall. This is not to suggest that we should have undue pity for the meritocratic elite or their offspring. But understanding reveals something that mere judging cannot.

“Concerted cultivation” is the phrase the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau minted to describe the child-rearing work of upper-middle-class parents. Such parents use their wealth, their economic capital, to pay for any number of enrichment activities for their offspring, thereby endowing them with a range of noneconomic forms of capital—social, symbolic, and cultural. Social connections, we have long known, are essential to acquiring and maintaining our positions. Being part of the “right” organizations and attending the right schools—having a symbolic affiliation with valuable institutions—can pay dividends. And of course, there’s culture. From recognizing art to knowing how to use the silverware at a formal dinner, having cultural tastes and dispositions that match those of the people who make decisions about your fate are essential.

In our hypercompetitive “winner-take-all society”—where the rewards pile up at the top and are scarce for just about everyone else—the multiple games well-off families play involving those various types of capital have been implicated in the trend toward widening inequality. Indeed, the idea that such forms of capital constitute inequality has so strongly permeated our thinking that we rarely step back and ask, “What do they really explain?” and “Do we properly understand how they work?”

Far from being merely academic, our misunderstandings and mystifications of the idea of cultural, social, and symbolic capital have consequences for how we live our lives, set our priorities, view our fellow citizens, arrive at our political convictions, and imagine our collective future. Rather than help us disenchant the often mysteriously entrenched inequities, injustices, and destructive perversities of our collective lives, the concept of cultural capital—and the related social and symbolic capitals—has become a kind of mystifying idol. My hope in the present essay is in some small way to help demystify this concept and bring us slightly closer to clarity.

In particular, I want to interrogate two burdens that complicate our understanding of noneconomic capital. The first has to do with the perceived role of elites themselves. Because we see them busily defining culture, developing and preserving the value of their networks, and (at least until recent decades) creating moats and fences around the institutions they control, we tend to assume that elites are more dominant in determining noneconomic forms of life than they actually are. This assumption I refer to as the burden of “elite determinism.”

The second burden derives from the word capital itself, which carries with it implications that cloud our comprehension of how noneconomic resources work in our society. It is not simply the Marxian weight of capital that can be difficult to bear. It is the broader, heavier component that I call “economic determinism.” By determinism, I do not mean that everything—culture, politics, religion, gender, and so on—is epiphenomenal to underlying economic structures and conditions. I instead mean that there is a conceptual legacy of economic thinking that gets carried over into noneconomic conditions and yields conceptual inaccuracies. It does so because money has a unique character, one that transfers poorly when we describe how social capital, symbols, and culture work. Our failure to recognize that difference may well obscure important dynamics of inequality.

To highlight these twin burdens, I will undertake an intellectual archaeology, principally by examining the work of Thorstein Veblen and Pierre Bourdieu to show how they shaped certain understandings of the symbolic, cultural, and social bases of inequality.

The Troubling Veblen

Born to Norwegian immigrants in 1857, Thorstein Veblen grew up in a disciplined yet progressive household on a farmstead in Wisconsin. His first and primary language was Norwegian. One of several academically inclined children in his family, Veblen studied economics at Carleton College, largely under the tutelage of John Bates Clark, a pioneer of what has become an almost axiomatic concept in economics, “marginal utility.” Veblen would build on Clark’s approach—understanding that the value of an object lies not simply in its “total utility,” that is, its usefulness to the world, but also in its “marginal utility,” the subjective satisfaction it gives to its consumer. If an object’s value were determined by its total utility, water might be the most expensive object in the world, since none of us could survive without it. Yet it is not, in part because there is a lot of it, but also because it provides us with little marginal utility. Companies today that charge a lot for bottled water seek, through marketing, to increase water’s marginal utility, which is to say the sense that we are consuming, with our Fiji water, something special.

Clark’s critical insight—that the value of objects is not in their usefulness, per se—had a deep impact on Veblen’s subsequent thinking. In his graduate training, he would work under the pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce at Johns Hopkins and then, at Yale, under William Graham Sumner. Deeply anti-imperialist, Sumner was a proponent of laissez-faire economics and a disciple of Herbert Spencer, who extended Darwin’s theory of biological reproduction to our social lives, presenting an evolutionary model of society that absolved capitalists of the worry that their fortunes might be built upon the suffering of others. Spencer believed that one must be cruel to be kind—that the suffering of others is necessary for the advancement of humanity. Arguing against poor laws, state redistribution, or any economic intervention, he coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and maintained that “the process must be undergone, and the sufferings must be endured.”11xHerbert Spencer, Social Statics, or The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified (London, England: John Chapman, 1851), 332–5. Quoted in David Nasaw, “Gilded Age Gospels,” in Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy, ed. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstl (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 131. In Spencer, no surprise, many a Gilded Age titan found a prophet. Andrew Carnegie wrote of him in his Autobiography, “I remember that light came as in a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution.”22xAndrew Carnegie, Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1986), 327. First published 1920. Quoted in Nasaw, “Gilded Age Gospels,” 129.

Veblen’s dissertation was written under Sumner and dealt with, among other things, the evolutionary thought of Spencer. It was met with little interest, and Veblen, all but unemployed for a decade, returned to his family’s farm to work and read. He eventually was able to secure employment at the University of Chicago and Stanford, though in precarious positions made even more so by his tendency to seduce his colleague’s wives.

The Theory of the Leisure Class was Veblen’s first and perhaps most influential book. On its publication in 1899 it was received poorly by scholars, in part because of its somewhat glib, satirical style. But even if scholarly engagement with the text was and remains limited, its ideas have worked their way into our collective discourse. The text outlines, in a purely speculative way, the origin of elites and offers an explanation for their hold on the culture of societies. Veblen’s approach—curiously, coming from a thinker with such a strong background in economics—is almost militantly antieconomic. He argues that the drive to accumulate is, of course, essential to any understanding of how societies function, but he posits that for elites, such a drive quickly becomes devalued and inheritance achieves a far higher symbolic value. Elites differentiate themselves from others through their capacity not to do what others have to do, namely, work:

It becomes indispensable to accumulate, to acquire property, in order to retain one's good name.… By a further refinement, wealth acquired passively by transmission from ancestors to other antecedents presently becomes even more honorific than wealth acquired by the possessor’s own effort.33xThorstein B. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions (New York, NY: Penguin, 1994), 29. Originally published in 1899.

Yet in their desire for distinction, elites also acquire significant power because, Veblen argues, those below them aspire to their position and seek to mimic them. The very title of the book reflects the view that what defines the dominant class is not its work or role in production but its leisure. Those who must work cannot copy the leisure of elites, but they have other options.

As a scholar of elites, I have always found the book wanting. Drawing on the writings of social contract theorists, it is structured around a kind of thought experiment about the nature and origins of man. And particularly troubling to me are the lingering effects of Veblen’s engagement with the social evolutionary perspective grounded in the writings of Spencer.

The virtue of Veblen’s approach is his attention to the relational and symbolic order of social life. He all but ignores (or better, denies) the material of social life—how things are produced, or what the products are. Extending Clark’s marginal utility approach in a radical direction, Veblen asserts that the objects matter far less than the symbolic value placed upon them. Yet to say that this is an extension of an economic approach is not quite accurate: Veblen takes a hostile stance toward the arguments of both the economists and the sociologists working in the Marxian tradition. Along with others writing at this time, including Émile Durkheim, Veblen focuses far more on cultural representations and symbolic systems of meaning.

In effect, Veblen argues that we consume for symbolic reasons, and that we do so relationally—not as an expression of self but as part of a conversation with others. The objects, again, matter less in their materiality than in what they represent, and the representations are oriented not toward the owners of the objects themselves but toward others, defining for them what is desirable to own. The acquisitions of the leisure class are signs of who they are: Others can know them by what they consume. Since workers can’t imitate the leisure patterns of elites, their option is instead to emulate the consumption patterns of those just above them in the status order:

The result is that the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up to that ideal.… Very much of squalor and discomfort will be endured before the last trinket or the last pretense of pecuniary decency is put away.44xIbid., 84-5.

Material goods thus take on symbolic, representational meanings, reflecting one’s position and creating the terrain for shared conversations. What we do is not “who we are” but instead “where we are”—a reflection of our positioning in the status order and a representation of our collective or shared understanding of the consumption of others. There is something both profound and valuable in Veblen’s approach: Our symbolic order is a shared imagined community, where such imaginings take on more power than the material order. Whereas Durkheim sees the symbolic order as emerging through shared rituals, Veblen sees it arising through shared representations.

Veblen’s rejection of materialism is welcome yet extreme. Though he abandons economic determinism, he builds elite determinism into our understanding of culture. Symbols and culture are constituted by the elite and then tend to “trickle down” from on high to the lower rungs of the social latter. This framework grants elites enormous power over the cultural order, symbolic representations, and the imagined ties in our social fabric.

If this were indeed the case, the “job” of wealthy families would be to promote imitation of their tastes while excluding those below them from fully entering their ranks, largely by making sure that others could not consume exactly what they, the wealthy, consumed. Yet this is not always the case. In some of my recent work with Fabien Accominotti and Adam Storer, we explored the critical role an emerging group of educated middle-class professionals played in constituting elite tastes in classical music during the Gilded Age.55xFabien Accominotti, Shamus Khan, and Adam Storer, “How Cultural Capital Emerged in Gilded Age America: Musical Purification and Cross-Class Inclusion at the New York Philharmonic,” American Journal of Sociology 123 (2018): 1743–83. Other scholars have looked at phenomena like “slumming” or have developed concepts like “cultural appropriation” to understand how elite groups consistently engage with and take from the cultural practices, repertoires, and meanings of others from all levels of the status hierarchy. Think for a moment about jazz and its association with “highbrow” musical taste. It is anything but a case of “trickle down”—if anything, it is an example of something that was vacuumed up.

Another major challenge to Veblen’s framework is the fact that elites today are not, for the most part, a leisure class. The “meritocratic” elites tend to work long hours—longer than other groups. Furthermore, at least in recent decades, instead of building moats around their institutions and networks, these elites have been trying to open them up to others, including racial and ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTQ+ people who had previously been excluded. Yet despite the best intentions and efforts of such elites, socioeconomic divisions have not only remained but widened. In my first book, on elite formation at an exclusive private school, I explored this puzzle of “democratic inequality”: the fact that, despite the opening of elite institutions in response to external demands and changes in sensibilities, inequality is almost unimaginably greater today than it was in the 1960s.66xShamus Khan, Privilege: The Making of An Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011). For so long, we thought that access to such institutions would transform the wider society. Open the doors, and equality will follow. But the reality is that as elite schools have opened their doors and various other institutions have embraced a commitment to diversity, inequality has increased. In light of this puzzle, Veblen’s vision of elite dominance and exclusion as a determinant of inequality is untenable.


The Pugnacious Bourdieu

Unfortunately, the idea that culture “comes from” elites or that elite culture is the dominant culture continues to hold considerable sway over our thinking. The twentieth-century sociologist Pierre Bourdieu sought, in part, to counter this conception by constructing a model of relationality that is far more dynamic than “trickle down.” It is, more exactly, a conversation (maybe a shouting match), or a process of making distinctions. Unlike Veblen, Bourdieu built on, rather than against, a model of economic capital, and so introduced another challenge to our understanding of social, symbolic, and cultural resources.

Like Veblen, Bourdieu took an interest in consumption. Also like Veblen, he began life as an outsider. Bourdieu (1930–2002) was born and raised in the southwest of France, about as far from Paris as one can live and still be French. It is hard to fully capture what this means if one is not French. The simplest explanation is that it is like being told, in so many ways, that you don’t belong, and you never will. The young Bourdieu played rugby, and I suspect he hit hard when he did. That’s because his academic career was fiercely pugilistic. Yet unlike Veblen, who never left the periphery of the academy, Bourdieu fought his way to the very apex of French intellectual life, the Collège de France, and spent much of his time pushing down others who tried to reach his heights.

Bourdieu’s output was tremendous; his thought, monumentally influential. For all his mighty academic squabbles, he channeled much of his energy into advocating for the excluded. As the son of a postal worker, Bourdieu did not grow up poor, but neither was he one of the well-heeled chosen. From his earliest ethnographic work in Algeria to his own experiences of being made to feel like an outsider (his first language was not French but Béarnese, a dialect of Gascon), Bourdieu was deeply engaged in French political and social life, always arguing for a more inclusive society. In his scholarly work, this meant writing often-blistering critiques of elites, seeking to undermine their legitimacy and reveal the hidden sources of their power.

Bourdieu saw not just economic power, but multiple intersecting forms of social power, as constituting the social system. Inequality is at the center of Bourdieu’s framework, and culture plays a critical role in producing that inequality. Yet whereas Veblen insisted that cultural consumption is defined by emulation, Bourdieu argued that it is part of a process of difference making—or “distinction”—and conflict. This assertion reflects his broad system of thought, which always emphasizes struggle. In Bourdieu’s conceptualization, the world is divided into fields on which contenders joust to make the ground they hold more valuable.

After his more anthropologically oriented work on Algeria (on family structure, the uprooting of rural life, and urbanization, among other things), Bourdieu became increasingly interested in the role of educational institutions in the production and reproduction of social hierarchies. Playing an influential role in the protest movements of 1968 that swept through universities and into the streets, he was prominent among those who questioned the role of schools, particularly how they seemed designed to serve the elite and help elite families maintain their positions. Since attendance at state-supported French schools is, for the most part, free, Bourdieu was less interested in economic access to those schools than in the elites’ disproportionate admission to and success in them. He grounded his explanation of the relationship between the university system and the perpetuation of social hierarchies in some of the early insights from his Algerian observations; applying them to French schools, he developed the concept of “cultural capital.”

Originally, in the 1977 book Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, which he wrote with Jean-Claude Passeron, a sociology professor at the University of Paris, Bourdieu understood cultural capital as “goods” transmitted to individual children through family practices that were more or less valued depending on how closely they matched the cultural practices deemed important by institutions like schools.77xPierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1977). This discussion of the book draws on Max Besbris and Shamus Khan, “Less Theory. More Description,” Sociological Theory 35, no. 2 (2017): 147–53, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0735275117709776. Bourdieu and Passeron argued that cultural capital was the product of an alignment between individual or group practices and institutional logics. To say that some people had “more” cultural capital was not to imply that some people were cultured and others were not. Rather, some had a culture that aligned with institutional expectations, and thereby received benefits because of that alignment. Within this framework, culture is valuable not because of its inherent quality or character, but through its consistency with particular institutional expectations. If we think of the idea of a “hidden curriculum,” we can see how some people just seem to know what is tacitly expected but never explicitly stated. Having spent lots of time in elite institutions, elites know what those institutions want, because those institutions have formed them.

Importantly, and in clear contradistinction to Veblen, Bourdieu did not believe that elites “defined” cultural capital. Elite institutions may define it for their own contexts, and then participants in those institutions either match or do not match those institutional expectations. But elite institutions do not have a unique hold on determining appropriate behavior. The New York Philharmonic might define expectations for its audiences. But NASCAR, too, defines expectations with which people can, more or less, align. Everyone “has” culture. But some people’s culture matches institutions of power, and other people’s culture exists in conflict with the expectations of those powerful institutions. Those who match enjoy often invisible advantages, and those in conflict may well be punished.

Bourdieu broke with Passeron and eventually returned to the concept of cultural capital in his own work, applying it well beyond schools. In his classic and most influential text, Distinction (1984), Bourdieu explained cultural capital as “an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or explicit mastery of a cipher or code,” which could include, “table manners or the art of conversation, musical culture or the sense of propriety, playing tennis or pronunciation.”88xPierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 2, 70. Bourdieu insisted that such practices were relational and contextual. What makes one practice valuable in relation to another is thus largely arbitrary. This doesn’t mean unimportant. It simply means that something’s value is not “inherent”—classical music is not more intellectually developed or complex than heavy metal. Instead, the power of such music is in what it is associated with, or related to. It gets played in Carnegie Hall; university music programs are built around having orchestras that perform it; rich people are more likely to like it.

Whereas Veblen saw tastes as being “top down,” Bourdieu understood them as existing within a relational matrix. Everyone, and indeed every group, has “taste,” which Bourdieu defined in Distinction as “an acquired disposition to ‘differentiate’ and ‘appreciate’…to establish and mark differences by a process of distinction…[that ensures] recognition (in the ordinary sense).” And such tastes, he noted, are in constant dialogue with the tastes of others. “It is no accident that, when they have to be justified,” he argued, “they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes.”99xIbid., 56.

The Constant Dance of Distinction

The aim of similarly positioned people (what we might call a “group”) is not to emulate, but instead to differentiate in light of the tastes of others. Groups are defined by their boundaries—by who is excluded as much as by who is included. Such inclusion and exclusion are not just about types of people but also types of things—food, music, objects that adorn our walls, clothes we wear, etc. Insofar as groups seek a strong distinction between themselves and some other group, exclusion of that other group’s practices becomes particularly meaningful. Burberry, the high-end British clothing company, for example, faced something of a crisis when its products suddenly became associated with a new group. The clothing, long sported by affluent ladies and gentlemen who might be on a fox hunt, was embraced by those low-income urban whites who in Britain are dismissively (and offensively) referred to as “chavs.” The plaid checkered pattern that defined the brand began to be referred to as the “chav check.” As the Daily Mail reported, “It spent years in the fashion wilderness after being adopted by a distinctly down-market crowd.”1010xSiofra Brennan, “Burberry Finally Shakes Off Its ‘Chav Check’ Reputation as Millennials Re-Embrace the Iconic Print (and Even Gigi Hadid Is a Fan),” August 18, 2018, Daily Mail, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-6071585/Burberry-finally-shakes-chav-check-reputation.html.

Tastes are thus defined not through mimicry or emulation but through distinction. Working-class whites did not mimic elites; they captured Burberry. It was a different kind of cultural appropriation from one we typically think of—one from below. The cultural objects were “captured,” and tainted by association. Collections of taste exist in a field of contestation, where the associations between kinds of objects and kinds of people are in constant struggle. And just as working-class whites “claimed” Burberry, black rappers claimed Cristal Champagne, highly educated white urbanites tried to claim jazz, and white middle-class music listeners claimed versions of gospel and rhythm and blues music once it was sung by Elvis Presley. The field of culture is not one of trickle-down. It a struggle over who chooses and is able to like what kinds of things, and power is deployed to protect or capture a distinct way of defining oneself and one’s group.

In effect, elites play the same game as everyone else. Their power explains why they are more likely to win, but the outcome is hardly predetermined. That game, for all parties, is frequently one of expressing contempt for other groups, which they see as “fake” or less legitimate in what they are doing or what they like. Artists, for example, hold the bourgeoisie in a rather low estimation, but they may also sneer at “common people.” The creators of cultural objects do not pander to one group or another, but instead, Bourdieu argues, move between the two in a kind of conversation:

The artist agrees with the “bourgeois” in one respect: he prefers naivety to “pretentiousness.” The essentialist merit of the “common people” is that they have none of the pretensions to art (or power) which inspire the ambitions of the “petit bourgeois.” Their indifference tacitly acknowledges the monopoly. That is why, in the mythology of artists and intellectuals, whose outflanking and double-negating strategies sometimes lead them back to “popular” tastes and opinions, the “people” so often play a role not unlike that of the peasantry in the conservative ideologies of the declining aristocracy.1111xBourdieu, Distinction, 62.

This constant dance of distinction is one in which every group has its own style but is effectively moving to the same tune: defining itself in response to others, constituting its actions and tastes in light of those within its field of vision.

Bourdieu eliminated the elite determinism that was central to Veblen, but he grounded culture, symbols, and social ties in an analogy that rests upon an economic foundation. And with his analogy of economic resources, Bourdieu built into his framework a metaphor that has dominated the scholarly interpretations of his work—and, indeed, the broader public’s understanding of cultural, social, or symbolic capital.

And that is a problem precisely because money is not like other resources. It is fungible. If I have a dollar, and if you have a dollar, we have the same amount of money, no matter who we are. That is not how culture works. It is not how social connections work. It is not how symbols work, or ideas. Yet when talking about “capital,” we frequently use a monetary metaphor of its being “like money in your wallet.” Doing so obscures an important feature of noneconomic forms of capital: above all, that the status, position, or ascriptive identity of the holder greatly influences the value of the resource.1212xBesbris and Khan, “Less Theory. More Description.” An African immigrant woman of color who knows a lot of opera will find her opinions less recognized or respected than those of a white, gay professor. It is not the quality of the knowledge but the ascribed identity of the person it is associated with. The same set of resources has different values, in part because people and institutions do not just consider the value of objects sui generis. They consider it in relation to other, intersecting conditions. And this is a critical feature of inequality largely obscured by our use of the capital analogy.

The Matter of Ascriptive Identity

I spent my early career in dialogue with Bourdieu, puzzling through how elite institutions could have opened so significantly even as inequality increased. Opening the doors to the Ivy League institutions—changing them from places where women were excluded, where less than 1 percent of the student body was black, and LGBTQ+ people were driven into hiding, to places where women make up the majority of students, black students are enrolled in proportion to their share of the general population, and queer students make up, by some accounts, more than 20 percent of the student body—has been nothing short of a revolutionary transformation.1313xClass still matters, of course, and the class compositions of these schools is a different story I have thought through in Privilege. For data on queer students on university campuses, see Claude Mellins et al., “Sexual Assault Incidents among College Undergraduates: Prevalence and Factors Associated with Risk,” PLOS One 12, no. 11 (2017): e0186471.

Before these great transformations, scholars and social commentators tended to assume that if the less well-off could just “have” the right cultural, social, or symbolic capital, then opening the doors to elite institutions (or any institution) should be enough. People could cultivate the capitals they needed for success. This may well be how economic markets work. But if other forms of capital aren’t similarly fungible, then access won’t breed equality. What if having a certain kind of cultural capital fails to yield the same amount for you—not because of what you know but because of who you are? This is exactly what I have suggested—that the return on the investment of certain kinds of capital is highly contingent not on a person’s acquisition of the right tastes, connections, or associations, but on whether a person’s ascriptive identity is equally respected and valued.

Given our confusion on this matter, we may well need to transcend the capital analogy. If women and men have the same cultural competency around, say, sports knowledge, the cultural value will not be the same for women as it is for men. But conceptualizing about culture as capital does not help us see that. It may also lead us to blame those who receive smaller rewards for cultivating the same cultural tastes and dispositions, in no small part because it would seem less than rational, even perverse, for them to do so. This could explain, for example, why there are fewer women scientists. Even if women develop the intellectual capital necessary for working in the scientific realm, their return on investment is far lower than it is for men—not because they have less knowledge, but because others refuse to recognize the equal worth of their knowledge. Why not, instead, invest in those things that provide a higher return and for which you don’t have to live a life watching others with the same knowledge and skills enjoy disproportionate rewards? From this perspective, we can better grasp both the character of American inequality and the tendency of groups to construct distinct cultural tastes in opposition to dominant groups that devalue their skills.

Transcending the capital analogy helps us see some of the reasons why equality does not follow from openness. As nonelites gain access to elite institutions, they do not receive the same value, even if they receive the same cultural, intellectual, and social goods that elites receive. Minority people’s cultural knowledge, social connections, and symbolic affiliations—while similar to those that offspring of the elites receive—are simply of less worth because of who they are as members of previously excluded groups. Elites may open their institutions to those who were formerly excluded without risking the loss of their positions. Instead of thinking only about promoting access to goods that will trickle down to promote an illusion of equality, we need to commit more profoundly to equality itself.

Equality of opportunity is essential, of course. But it is not enough. As long as the value of culture, symbols, and social ties remains contingent on the identity of the holder, no amount of opportunity will lead to equal outcomes. Moreover, access without the possibility of equal outcomes yields a troubling implication: that minoritized groups lack what it takes to succeed. Transcending the monetary analogy and recognizing how ascriptive identities inform the value of noneconomic resources reveals the foundations of durable inequalities and helps us understand why a more open world is not necessarily a more equal one—and why elites can embrace opportunity without jeopardizing their own ascriptive advantages.