Lawrence Otis Graham, (pictured center) a New York attorney and author, used to assume that money and privilege could insulate people of color from discrimination.
He is best known for documenting the lives of the elite. For his 1992 New York Magazine article, “Invisible Man,” he went undercover to work as a busboy in an elite country club which had no Black members (the place was so bigoted, members actually called the dormitory for workers “The Monkey House”). In 1999, he made headlines with Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class.
In an exclusive interview with NewsOne, Graham revealed what has inspired his focus on the elite, and what he has to say to critics of that focus.
He and his wife Pamela Thomas Graham, both African Americans with Ivy League degrees, believed their education, connections and great jobs (she is the former chief executive of CNBC) would protect their children from the bigotry they experienced as children growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the family had a come-to-Jesus moment this summer when Graham’s 15-year-old was called the n-word as he was walking across the campus of an elite New England boarding school, Graham writes in a piece at the Princeton Alumni Weekly, which was picked up by the Washington Post.
From the Princeton Alumni Weekly:
It was a Tuesday afternoon when my 15-year-old son called from his academic summer program at a leafy New England boarding school and told me that as he was walking across campus, a gray Acura with a broken rear taillight pulled up beside him. Two men leaned out of the car and glared at him.
“Are you the only nigger at Mellon Academy [fictionalized name]?” one shouted.
Certain that he had not heard them correctly, my son moved closer to the curb, and asked politely, “I’m sorry; I didn’t hear you.”
But he had heard correctly. And this time the man spoke more clearly. “Only … nigger,” he said with added emphasis.
The men peeled away from the curb in a gray Acura with a broken rear taillight, their laughter echoing behind them.
Herein lay the difference between my son’s black childhood and my own. Not only was I assaulted by the n-word so much earlier in life — at age 7, while visiting relatives in Memphis — but I also had many other experiences that differentiated my life from the lives of my white childhood friends. There was no way that they would “forget” that I was different. The times, in fact, dictated that they should not forget; our situation would be unavoidably “racial.”
When my family moved into our home in an all-white neighborhood in suburban New York in December 1967, at the height of the black-power movement and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil-rights marches, integration did not — at all — mean assimilation. So my small Afro, the three African dashiki-style shirts that I wore to school every other week, and the Southern-style deep-fried chicken and watermelon slices that my Southern-born mother placed lovingly in my school lunchbox all elicited surprise and questions from the white kids who regarded me suspiciously as they walked to school or sat with me in the cafeteria. After all, in the 1960s, it was an “event” — and generally not a trouble-free one — when a black family integrated a white neighborhood.
Graham grew up dreaming that life was different for the rich and worked hard to build such a life for himself and his family.
In the 1970s, I imagined that the privileged children of rich and famous blacks like Diana Ross, Bill Cosby or Sidney Poitier were untouched by the insults and stops that we faced.
Even though the idea wasn’t fully formed, I somehow assumed that privilege would insulate a person from discrimination. This was years before I would learn of the research by Peggy McIntosh, the Wellesley College professor who coined the phrase “white male privilege,” to describe the inherent advantages one group in our society has over others in terms of freedom from discriminatory stops, profiling and arrests. As a teenager, I didn’t have such a sophisticated view, other than to wish I were privileged enough to escape the bias I encountered.
He believed his economic privilege provided a cocoon to protect his children from the bias he confronted as a child.
And that was the goal we had in mind as my wife and I raised our kids. We both had careers in white firms that represented the best in law, banking and consulting; we attended schools and shared dorm rooms with white friends and had strong ties to our community (including my service, for the last 12 years, as chairman of the county police board). I was certain that my Princeton and Harvard Law degrees and economic privilege not only would empower me to navigate the mostly white neighborhoods and institutions that my kids inhabited, but would provide a cocoon to protect them from the bias I had encountered growing up. My wife and I used our knowledge of white upper-class life to envelop our sons and daughter in a social armor that we felt would repel discriminatory attacks. We outfitted them in uniforms that we hoped would help them escape profiling in stores and public areas: pastel-colored, non-hooded sweatshirts; cleanly pressed, belted, non-baggy khaki pants; tightly-laced white tennis sneakers; Top-Sider shoes; conservative blazers; rep ties; closely cropped hair; and no sunglasses. Never any sunglasses.
But the boarding-school incident this summer marked a turning point for Graham and his family.
Being called a nigger was, of course, a depressing moment for us all. But it was also a moment that helped bring our surroundings into clearer focus. The fact that it happened just days before the police shooting of Michael Brown increased its resonance for our family. Our teenage son no longer makes eye contact with pedestrians or drivers who pass on the street or sidewalk. He ceased visiting the school library this summer after sundown, and now refuses to visit the neighborhood library, just one block away, unless accompanied. He asks us to bear with him because, as he explains, he knows that the experience is unlikely to happen again, but he doesn’t like the uncertainty. He says he now feels both vulnerable and resentful whenever he is required to walk unaccompanied.
Indeed, Graham and his wife made painstaking efforts to shield their children from racism and bigotry. But the truth is that Blacks and people of color will continue to have come-to-Jesus moments with racism in America until Whites stop paying lip service to the problem and actually address the problem. Until then, the more things change, the more they stay the same.