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'Feet in two worlds,' at Princeton and beyond

In 1982, a Princeton fraternity ordered its pledges to urinate on the door of the Third World Center.

Lawrence Otis Graham '83 — an African American from an affluent suburb in Westchester County, N.Y. — simmered as he watched the controversy surrounding the incident unfold.


Shocked by the University's failure to respond, Graham insisted to the Dean of Student Affairs that the University condemn the act of bigotry, which was already creating a groundswell of quiet discussion within the undergraduate body.

The dean refused.

"What do you want me to do, go scrub it off?" he shot back at Graham.

Frustrated at what he considered flagrant racism — yet mindful of the rickety social balance he faced as an "integrated" African-American student — Graham drafted a letter to The Daily Princetonian.

"I felt that I had my feet in two worlds," he said, "coming from a predominantly white, integrated neighborhood, but also having a mixed group of friends and a black identity."

Graham's letter — which argued that the incident could lead to more serious acts if it were excused simply as "college fun" — drew fire from various students.


"I was not alone in being relatively quiet and cautious, but I was concerned with my white friends asking me why I would [speak out] openly," he recalled. "In the same way that my Jewish roommate, who was very observant, was concerned of talking with non-Jewish friends about Jewish-Christian relations."

Coming to the University was not Graham's first encounter with the "schizophrenic" double life of members of the black upper crust. And it would not be his last.

In his most recent non-fiction piece, "Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class," Graham examines the deep-rooted class divide within the African-American community — a phenomenon he observed throughout his childhood and continues to see today.

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The book offers an inside look at the world of black elites: a world preoccupied with debutante cotillions, old-money, attending the right black colleges, summering in certain vacation spots, belonging to elite social clubs and, of course, passing the "brown paper bag and ruler test" — which calls for skin as light as a paper bag and hair as straight as a ruler.

There is Jack and Jill, the nationwide by-invitation-only social network for children of prominent blacks, which Graham lauds for "encouraging black children to perform public service and give back to the community." Well-connected and accomplished men are selected to join either the Boule or the Guardsmen, and women choose between the Links and the Girl Friends.

Graham once was a Jack and Jiller. Today he belongs to Boule.

In describing the social structure and history of prominent blacks in America, he speaks of the mixture of "pride and guilt that thrive among the black elite."

"I grew up thinking that there were only two types of black people: those who passed the 'brown paper bag and ruler test' and those who didn't," he said. "Those who were members of the black elite and those who weren't."

His maternal grandmother, a "well-educated, light-complexioned, straight-haired Southern black woman," reinforced this idea for the young Graham. While they were vacationing in Martha's Vineyard, she would warn Graham and his younger brother to stay out of the sun because it would darken their "already too dark skin."

A prolific writer as an undergraduate, Graham busied himself stringing for Good Housekeeping magazine and other publications. He also authored books giving advice to parents and students on college admissions and student life — all while maintaining a regular schedule of classes.

"My first book was a 10-point plan on college acceptance," he said, explaining that his interest in journalism started at his high school newspaper, where he was the editor. "Then I wrote a book each year I was in college. That's how I paid my own way through college."

The New York native took his proclivity for writing to the classroom, where he stood out as a writer, and drafted his first fiction novel — a comic take on campus life — for his senior thesis in creative writing.

"Larry was a wunderkind," noted professor John McPhee '53, who helped Graham delve into non-fiction writing in a humanities seminar that was brimming with future journalists and writers.

Chortling, McPhee added, "I've never had a student in my class who was already the author of two books."

"I grew up in a well-to-do white neighborhood, so coming to Princeton was not a shock, except that my community was a lot more integrated than Princeton at the time," Graham said, explaining that the majority of black students chose to live together in what was then Princeton Inn.

"It was self-selective and certainly a much more segregated atmosphere than today," he added. For his part, Graham moved between up-campus housing in Holder and Butler, which was then known as New Quad.

More than just the names of buildings have changed since Graham graduated from Princeton — including the hiring of more African-American faculty members and greater campus discussion of racial issues.

"At the time I was there, we had a small, almost nonexistent black faculty. President Bowen did not even speak much about diversity, much less did we have a Jewish president," he noted, referring to President Shapiro.

Graham remembered the 1980s at Princeton as a time of suppressed dialogue on sensitive issues — the result, he said, of the decade's conservative political atmosphere and an unwillingness to address controversial topics by upper-level administrators.

Recalling the TWC urination incident, Graham said he was initially shocked by the student body's quiet reaction.

"There wasn't the fearless courage for an open discussion that there is these days," he said. "The problem was that the administration never talked about these issues. Since it was not a welcome topic at the higher levels, it therefore never trickled down."

"I think it made me more aware of how important it is to not be complacent," he noted.

And if that was the lesson Princeton taught, Graham proved an apt pupil.

After graduation and three years at mostly-white Harvard Law School, he settled into the prestigious Manhattan corporate law firm Weil, Gotshal and Menges for five years. Continuing to write books about educational and social issues, he embarked in 1992 on a mission to uncover what he labeled the "passive racism" underlying elite country clubs — probably his best-known accomplishment.

While conducting research for his book, "The Best Companies for Minorities," Graham had repeatedly caught wind of the complaint that blacks, Hispanics and women were hitting a glass ceiling because they were blocked out of the influential business network.

"It was primarily because I saw something going on with my peers and from others at banks and accounting firms, and they kept telling about the importance of clubs in creating business connections," he said.

Putting his occupation on hold for two months, Graham fabricated a resume and went undercover as a busboy at Greenwich Country Club, where the racism he encountered became fodder for his next bestselling book.

"This was during the early '90s, when there was really an old boys network, and these clubs were blatantly discriminating," Graham explained. Several times when he called clubs to apply for a job, administrators — thrown off by what one club-goer later called Graham's "diction of an educated white man" — would confirm openings in their staff. But when Graham met with them in person just one hour later, they would deny that any positions were available.

Club members and administrators also referred to a house in which many of the staff members lived as the "monkey house," Graham said.

"There was a massive bias and these people who hold an important place in our society, who don't even realize their own attitudes, totally missed the point," he recalled. "It was amazing."

Graham's latest social enterprise is unfolding in a different arena — he is seeking to unseat Republican incumbent Sue Kelly in a Congressional race in New York's 19th district. Graham, who faces one opponent in the Democratic primary, is focusing his campaign on education, the environment and gun control — issues he thinks will appeal to suburban voters across party lines in the general election.

Because the district has traditionally been a moderate Republican stronghold with a popular incumbent, the odds seem stacked against Graham.

But the Princeton alumnus has always been quick to examine the status quo and even quicker to challenge it. And with Graham in the campaign, the status quo is bound to be on its heels.