The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawrence Otis Graham, author who examined prejudice and privilege in Black America, dies at 59

Lawrence Otis Graham in 2015. (Michael N. Meyer/Cuddy & Feder LLP)
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Lawrence Otis Graham possessed all the qualifications for full-fledged membership in the American elite. He was a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. At 30, he was a published author and earned $105,000 a year as a corporate lawyer with an office on the 30th floor of a Manhattan office tower. He dressed in a manner befitting his exclusive environs and displayed all the social graces expected from a man of his station.

And yet, he would later observe, he gained admission to Greenwich Country Club in Connecticut “the only way that a black man like me could — as a $7-an-hour busboy.”

Mr. Graham, who died Feb. 19 at 59, had scrapped his résumé and sought employment at the leafy club in a social experiment of sorts — “to find out,” he wrote in a 1992 cover story for New York magazine, “what things were really like at a club where I saw no black members.”

One maitre d’, after genially offering him an interview over the phone, refused to accept Mr. Graham’s application when he showed up to submit it. Numerous managers who had indicated their interest in hiring him as a waiter decided upon meeting him that he was better suited for busing tables.

On one occasion, a diner imperiously demanded a coffee refill and, impressed by Mr. Graham’s polished response, remarked to her companion: “My goodness. Did you hear that? That busboy has diction like an educated white person.”

After the New York magazine article, Mr. Graham wrote several books that established him as one of the foremost commentators of the 1990s on race and class in American society. He died at his home in Chappaqua, N.Y., according to his wife, Pamela Thomas-Graham, who said the cause has not yet been determined.

Commentary by Lawrence Otis Graham: I taught my black kids that their elite upbringing would protect them from discrimination. I was wrong.

Mr. Graham’s account of the country club grew into an essay collection, “Member of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized World” (1995), replete with vivid reflections on the racism, both subtle and overt, that persisted in the United States decades after the civil rights movement.

In one chapter, Mr. Graham offered what he ironically described as “A Black Man’s Undercover Guide to Dining With Dignity at Ten Top New York Restaurants.” At five of the 10 establishments, Mr. Graham wrote, someone handed him a garment to be stowed in the coat check. In seven of them, he was seated near the kitchen or bathroom.

He wrote about his preference not to date White women in an explanation of why some African Americans opposed interracial marriage and candidly discussed his decision at age 24 to alter his nose through plastic surgery. When he asked for the operation in high school, his parents had denied his request, regarding it as a form of self-loathing. Mr. Graham rejected such interpretations.

“No nose in the world is going to make me look White,” he told The Washington Post in 1995. “When White people perm their hair, tan their skin or thicken their lips, nobody accuses them of trying to look Black,” he continued. “I’m tired of Black people having to live with this double standard.”

Mr. Graham examined the particular experience of affluent African Americans in the volume “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” published in 1999. His intention, he told the Boston Globe, “was to broaden the definition of what it means to be Black in America today.”

The world of the Black upper class was one of constant tension, Mr. Graham wrote, where few could enjoy unadulterated pleasure in their prosperity.

“You are living in a White world but you have to hold on to Black culture,” he told The Post of his own upper-middle-class upbringing. “You have to please two groups. One group says you have sold out and the other never quite accepts you.”

Some readers found the book gossipy — Mr. Graham reported that the Black upper class had accepted Bryant Gumbel and Lena Horne but not Bill Cosby or Whitney Houston, that Andrew Young had been admitted but not Clarence Thomas — but many found it deeply revealing. A reviewer for the New York Times, Andrea Lee, wrote that Mr. Graham had “made a major contribution both to African-American studies and to the larger American picture.”

That picture where, for all his success, Mr. Graham said he felt obliged to carry a bag from Tiffany & Co. or Saks Fifth Avenue when he went shopping so that he would not be mistaken for a shoplifter.

Lawrence Otis Graham was born in New York on Dec. 25, 1961. His grandparents owned a trucking company in Memphis, and his father worked in real estate. His mother was a social worker.

When Mr. Graham’s family moved to White Plains, N.Y., his parents were forced to pay a $5,000 premium for the privilege of buying a home in a White neighborhood. Once, a police officer detained Mr. Graham and his brother after spotting them playing with what the officer assumed to be a stolen Radio Flyer wagon. Their mother rushed to her sons’ aid, explaining to the officer that the bright red wagon was theirs.

On another occasion, the brothers were invited by friends to a country club and were bewildered when White parents pulled their children from the swimming pool when they leaped in.

“It wasn’t until we were poolside that we discovered that we were the threat,” Mr. Graham wrote years later in Westchester Magazine. “This was probably my earliest and most memorable experience in feeling like an outsider.”

Mr. Graham majored in English at Princeton, where he graduated in 1983, and received a law degree from Harvard in 1988. During his studies and afterward, he wrote books on navigating university and professional life. In addition to his legal career, he ran a management consulting firm that sought to help companies increase diversity in the workforce.

Mr. Graham unsuccessfully sought a New York-based seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000. He was the author of “The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty” (2006), about the life and descendants of a formerly enslaved person, Blanche Kelso Bruce, who in 1875 became the second African American to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Film director Lee Daniels is reportedly at work on a TV series based on “Our Kind of People.”

Mr. Graham had been married since 1992 to the former Pamela Thomas, the first African American woman to become a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Besides his wife, who is also a mystery writer and a member of corporate boards, survivors include three children, Gordon Graham, Harrison Graham and Lindsey Graham, all of Chappaqua; and a brother.

In a commentary published in The Post in 2014, Mr. Graham wrote that he and his wife had “believed that if we worked hard and maintained great jobs, we could insulate our children from the blatant manifestations of bigotry that we experienced as children in the 1960s and ’70s.”

“We divided our lives between a house in a liberal New York suburb and an apartment on Park Avenue, sent our three kids to a diverse New York City private school, and outfitted them with the accoutrements of success: preppy clothes, perfect diction and that air of quiet graciousness,” he wrote.

None of it, he wrote, was enough to spare his then 15-year-old son the experience of being assaulted with the n-word on the campus of a New England boarding school where he was attending a summer camp.

“I knew the day would come,” Mr. Graham wrote, “but I didn’t know how it would happen, where I would be, or how I would respond. It is the moment that every black parent fears.”

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