Lawrence Otis Graham – The “Black Table” Is Still There
Born December 25, 1962, in Westchester County, NY; son of Richard C. and Betty Graham.
Education: Princeton University, B.A., 1983; Harvard University, J.D., 1988.
Memberships: City of New York Bar Association; American Bar Association; National Bar Association.
Admitted to Bar, 1989; Weil, Gotshal & Manges (law firm), attorney, New York, NY, 1988; Smith, McDaniel & Donahue (law firm focusing on environmental issues), attorney; adjunct professor at Fordham University; lecturer at Harvard Business School, University of Virginia School of Commerce, and University of Pennsylvania School of Law; legal commentator, WNBC-TV New York; author.
A corporate lawyer whose work revolves around such issues as the purchase and sale of companies, Lawrence Otis Graham also heads a management company whose mission is to guide corporations bent on hiring workers from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. Neither law nor diversity counseling is Graham's first advice-giving venture. An instinctive observer with a talent for finding a market gap, he was a 17-year-old university student when his first book appeared. Since then, he has written nearly 20 other titles and numerous magazine articles that have shown his readers how to get into medical or law school, how to diminish the prejudice that seals glass ceilings in place for women and various other minority groups, and how to bridge the cultural gaps that make an integrated life so difficult to achieve. He is an increasingly familiar guest on television talk shows, and a teacher at Fordham University, where his class on justice for women and other minorities in the corporate setting is popular with Afro-American Studies students.
Lawrence Otis Graham comes from a New York family accustomed to affluence. His grandparents owned a Memphis trucking firm, and his father continued in the business tradition by carving his own niche in real estate. His mother chose a career as a social worker. Despite their position as members of the black upper-middle class, Lawrence Graham's parents had no illusions that their son's entry into a white-dominated world would be easy. So, determined to ensure that he would follow their example and reach his fullest potential, they taught him a creed that would give him the confidence to target high goals and work towards them. "Find your own identity," they always said, "and never let television, the media or anyone else define your role for you."
He has followed this advice assiduously, though he has not always found that such resolute individuality produces comfort. While integrating smoothly with white colleagues in all fields, he feels twinges of unease in the white world; while able to adapt to any black group he enters, he seldom feels completely accepted. As he told Washington Post reporter Malcolm Gladwell in 1995: "You are living in a white world but you have to hold on to black culture.... One group says you have sold out and the other never quite accepts you."
His first taste of nonacceptance occurred at age 10, when he went with a white friend to a country club pool. He plunged into the water along with everyone else, who promptly scrambled out. Thinking there was something in the pool to be afraid of; he followed and soon found that he himself had unwittingly prompted the flight. Nevertheless, by the time he reached high school, his background made him far more comfortable as the lone black member of the tennis team and the school orchestra (he played the oboe) than he was with the few working-class black students he encountered.
When the time came to decide on a college, Lawrence Graham chose Princeton. His family objected strongly, since the Ivy League school had been known in the past for its anti-minority bias. Reminders of former president Woodrow Wilson's staunch anti-black policy were raised. There were recollections of Princeton's accidental integration in 1944, when four black students had been included in a Navy ROTC program. There were quotations from a 1949 speech made by singer Paul Robeson, a Rutgers graduate, who recalled his bitter childhood in the town of Princeton itself. Still, Lawrence did not let his family's objections sway him. Intent on getting the best education his intellectual ability deserved, he insisted on attending Princeton because it had been listed by many college reference books as one of America's most competitive and top schools.
Once arrived, he found that the racism of the 1940s had declined. There were now many black students on campus, including such famous Afro-Americans as novelist Toni Morrison. However, the situation was still far from ideal. In an essay called "The Underside of Paradise," which appears in his collection Member of the Club, Graham sums up his undergraduate experience: "What I found at Princeton was a campus, a student body, a faculty, and a community that had no tolerance for black students who wanted an integrated experience. Regardless of your views, you were compelled to choose between black and white." Ironically, he found the situation identical in both black and white groups.
He did not allow this to derail his own ambitions. In fact he wrote one book each year until he graduated. His first, The Ten Point Plan for College Acceptance, required visits to 50 schools in six states, but was completed by the time he finished his freshman year. "I decided to write an article about getting into college," he said. "No one would publish it because I was an unknown 17-year- old, so I decided to make it into a book instead. I came to New York by bus with two rolls of dimes and started calling publishers from a call box on Park Avenue." Most publishers' receptionists laughed when he spoke to them, but he was not discouraged. "I take an entrepreneurial approach to everything," he later observed. "I NEVER take no for an answer."
Eventually one publisher suggested he get an agent to help sell his book. Grateful for the advice, Graham flipped the telephone directory from `P' for publishers to `L' for literary agents, and opened his second roll of dimes. He had reached "Zeckendorf, Susan," the next to last name on the list, before getting an appointment, which eventually led to the book's publication. The Ten Point Plan sold 20,000 copies and earned him guest appearances on the Phil Donahue Show as well as on the Today Show.
By the time he was a senior at Princeton, both Jobs in the Real World and Conquering College Life had been completed. Graham had also honed his skills to cover his confusion over his personal social niche. "With my antiapartheid activism," he recalls, in an article called "The Underside of Paradise," "the militant blacks forgave me for rooming with whites. With my published books, talk- show appearances, conservative clothes, the bigoted and not-so- bigoted whites made me an exception to their rule of not socializing with blacks."
Graham graduated from Princeton in 1983 and entered Harvard University Law School. He continued to write a book each year. Characteristically, he also kept an eye out for other stimulating opportunities. In 1984, with the help of his roommate, Lawrence Hamdan, he became aware of the possibilities offered by the hitherto untapped teen-to-twenty market. Graham and Hamdan focused on the $200-million collective spending power this group represented, and even went so far as to hire 135 young testers nationwide to keep them abreast of trends in movie heroes, television shows, and clothing of high-school aged consumers. The two young entrepreneurs gave their teenage targets the name "flyers" (Fun Loving Youth en Route to Success) and established F.L.Y.E.R.S. Services Inc., to counsel corporate marketers on ways to reach them. Soon, the two Harvard students boasted such clients as Nestle and Benetton, and by 1987 had sold $250,000 worth of advice. In addition, they had produced two books--the lighthearted F.L.Y.E.R.S.: Fun-Loving Youth En Route to Success (published in 1985 by Simon & Schuster), and Youth Trends, a more serious look at methods of marketing to teenagers, which was published in 1987 by St. Martin's Press. Seeing the success of this venture, they also began to sell a line of F.L.Y.E.R.S. tote bags, tee shirts, notebooks, windbreakers, and other products in stores.
Graham did not let the success of F.L.Y.E.R.S. distract him from his longterm goal of becoming a successful lawyer. He began to interview for jobs in 1986, lining up many appointments with New York law firms to make sure he would make the right choice after graduation. A meeting in one Wall Street office affected Graham deeply. Graham was interviewed by one of the firm's 250 lawyers, who made two remarks he found anti-Semitic. When invited to ask questions, Graham asked the interviewer how many of the firms attorneys were black. "Why should that matter?" was the disturbing answer. Immediately he started thinking about another book, which eventually appeared in 1993 as The Best Companies for Minorities.
Covering the largest industries in the U.S. economy, including the automotive industry, food, publishing, insurance, and accounting, Graham planned to investigate 625 Fortune 1000 companies offering the best hiring practices, support and mentoring systems, and opportunities for advancement to the most diverse population. Of these, Graham intended to choose the top 100 companies. However, in the end only 85 businesses were able to meet his stringent criteria. Among them were longtime activists in the minority arena, such as McDonalds, Avis, and General Motors.
In 1992, Graham followed up on some remarks that had prompted him to start his research for The Best Companies for Minorities. After interviewing more than 600 black professional people in top corporations, he learned that they felt like outsiders, because they were excluded from membership in places such as the exclusive country clubs where their white colleagues went to strengthen their networking relationships. The discovery prompted him to choose the country-club environment as the subject for an article called "The Invisible Man," which originally appeared in the New Yorker, and was later reprinted in Member of the Club.
In his essay Lawrence explains how he prepared himself for the assignment, first by rewriting his resume to omit both Harvard and Princeton from his academic record, then by buying himself an unassuming wardrobe. Graham set out to find himself a waiter's post by calling eight country clubs. The results of just these telephone calls were enough to show him that racism is alive and well in America. Of the eight clubs, five invited him to apply, but promptly rescinded their offers when he appeared in person to interview. In the end, two job opportunities came of this research. Graham chose a busboy position offered by the elite Greenwich Country Club in Connecticut. He stayed there for a month, though he found the atmosphere as genteelly racist as he had feared it would be, and the hours far too long for the meager paycheck he received.
A stream of letters to the magazine's editor followed publication of "The Invisible Man" in the New Yorker of August 17, 1992. One Greenwich Country Club member, concerned enough to want to excuse himself from the bias of his colleagues, showed himself to have missed the point entirely by suggesting that Graham would have advanced his own cause more successfully had he chosen to talk to the membership committee instead of writing about the club's deficiencies. A resident of Greenwich who did not belong to the Country Club chortled with glee at the unwelcome scrutiny the biased and boring members had received. A couple of black letter- writers mistakenly accused him of scoffing at the skimpy paycheck many families live on. Graham found the controversy stimulating, since it gave him a way to reach an even wider audience. Its message of racism was strong enough to catch the eye of Warner Brothers Studios, who contracted with him for a movie.
Graham continued to explore the awkwardness of American integration. "My Dinner with Mr. Charlie," also included in the Member of the Club collection, detailed his dining experiences in 10 of New York City's top restaurants. His agenda this time was twofold: to find out how many minority employees worked in each place, and to discover whether or not black clients would be welcomed. His results were discouraging. Several of the restaurants such as Lutece, Mortimer's, Le Cirque, and the 21 Club--culinary legends nationwide--confirmed his suspicions. Most tables he was offered were too close to the kitchen or the bathroom, and he was mistaken for a staff member far too many times for comfort. All this led to one lasting conclusion--that fine dining experience differs markedly according to one's skin color.
While Graham' articles and books on integration continue to appear, he does not neglect either his legal duties or his responsibilities as president of the White Plains, New York-based Progressive Management Associates. Here, he counsels minority graduates heading for the workplace. "Spend more time finding role models in the fields of business, politics and education," he urges. "Prepare yourself with as much education as possible--we can no longer rely on the glamour professions like the entertainment or sports world."
Named Young Lawyer of the Year, 1993, National Bar Association.
- Ten-Point Plan for College Acceptance, Quick Fox, 1981.
- Conquering College Life: How to Be a Winner at College, Washington Square Press, 1983.
- Your Ticket To Business School, Bantam, 1985.
- Your Ticket To Law School, Bantam, 1985.
- Your Ticket to Medical or Dental School, Bantam, 1985.
- (With Betty Graham) Teenager's Ask and Answer Book, Messner, 1986.
- The Best Companies for Minorities, Plume, 1994.
- Member of the Club, HarperCollins, 1995.
- Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1994.
- Inc., October 1987, p. 10.
- People Weekly, January 25, 1982, p. 97.
Gillian Wolf -http://www.answers.com/topic/lawrence-otis-graham
Questions to Consider for Writing:
Where in American Culture today does segregation continue to persist?
Are self-segregated lunch table altogether a negative social situation?
What other categories did Graham overlook in this essay?