Books: February 21, 1996

The Black-White Chasm

A successful black lawyer straddles the fence and feels like and outsider in both worlds

Member of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized World
Lawrence Otis Graham '83
HarperCollins, $25
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM '83 would seem to be living a great American success story. A published author since his teenage years, he parlayed his talents and a privileged upbringing into an education at Princeton and Harvard and a career as a Manhattan lawyer and freelance writer. But Graham is also black, and since American society won't let him forget it, he won't let us forget it, either.
"As a black professional in America it is sometimes so difficult to find acceptance in either the black or white communities that I often feel like an outsider to both," he writes in Member of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized World. "Alienation seems to be the price of living with a foot in each world."
His acceptance to Princeton, he writes, provoked suspicion that he had merely punched the affirmative-action ticket. In college, he found an institution and a student body still struggling with integration. He was baited by militant blacks, patronized by whites, and shunned by fellow black preppies who, like him, sought to avoid giving either camp reason for suspicion. "By the time I was ready to graduate," he writes, "my Princeton experience had taught me to become an expert at straddling the fence that ran between blacks and whites." Graham negotiated a separate peace with each group, combining his "integrated," prep-school demeanor with anti-apartheid activism. The desire to be accepted by both sides, of course, had a price: ". . . the only way I found to succeed in my situation was by expecting nothing, standing for little, and getting people to like the person they thought I was."
Naturally, Graham grew to resent that "schizophrenic game of 'crowd pleasing.' " One result is this book, a collection of essays and articles (some previously published elsewhere) that he hopes "will contribute to the creation of a society in which black professionals-and everyone else-need not be trapped between worlds that are either black or white. As more of us learn to openly discuss the ways in which we exclude members of our community and as we learn to candidly address our biases, we can learn to live with both feet firmly planted in a world that is whole."
Does he succeed? Graham deftly employs reporting skills, humor, and personal experience to illuminate the dimmer corners of the black-white chasm in this country. Some readers of PAW may already know of Graham's escapade at an all-white Connecticut country club, where he landed a job as a busboy to eavesdrop on bigoted conversations among its management and members.
At his best, Graham excels in puncturing white complacency about the growth of the black middle class and its ameliorative effects on racial tensions. If a black man with a $500 suit and a Gold Card can't get good service in Manhattan's finest restaurants, Graham seems to suggest, how long is integration going to take?
At times, however, he seems guilty of the very litmus-testing that he has found so crippling. In his essay entitled " 'Head Nigger in Charge': Roles that Black Professionals Play in Corporate America," he brings his gift for satire to bear on "types" of unprincipled black professionals he claims to have identified during years of working with corporations-the "Informant," the "Rubber Stamp," the "Affirmative Action Deal Closer," the "Colorless Dreamer," the "Self-Flagellating Basket Case," the "Self-Made Bootstrapper"-in language that borders on vicious.
Member of the Club will take its place on an important and growing shelf of thoughtful books by black professionals like Shelby Steele (The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, St. Martin's Press, 1990) and Stephen Carter (Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Basic Books, 1991). Like these writers, Graham has a knack for identifying crucial dilemmas facing blacks and whites in our society. One essay offers trenchant criticism of the leadership vacuum among blacks that anticipated the public debate over Louis Farrakhan and the Million Man March. He points out that blacks need to learn to embrace leaders with a multiracial constituency and avoid defending flawed spokesmen merely because they have been sanctified by white criticism.
In some important ways, however, the book's reach exceeds its grasp. Graham seems entirely comfortable defending the code enforced by blacks and whites against interracial dating. One brief but fascinating chapter, "Black Man with a Nose Job," hooks the reader with an irresistible question: What does it signify when blacks like Graham, with every reason to feel pride in their individual and ethnic identities, purchase cosmetic surgery for more Caucasian features? In the end, Graham seems to rationalize his right to a "whiter" nose without examining his own motivations.
For all Graham's engaging frankness and constructive criticism, his worldview is excessively dark and bitter. His aim of racial reconciliation is frequently belied by a fatalistic view of the white majority's capacity for change.
Graham attacks the old-boy network as a form of affirmative action for whites only, yet as a lawyer, a black professional, and an Ivy League graduate twice over, he benefits from plenty of networks, both race-based and otherwise. He concludes that legal remedies for discrimination will always be necessary and favors top-down policies for everything from racial tensions on campus to corporate hiring. The book left me wondering: If Graham really believes the "club" will never want him, why does he want to be a member?
-D. W. Miller '89
D. W. Miller, a former PAW staff writer, is the managing editor of Policy Review magazine, in Washington, D.C.