Lawrence Otis Graham, lawyer and author who exposed racism, dead at 59

One of Graham's books documented his experiences working undercover at an all-white country club in the early 1990s.

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Prominent lawyer Lawrence Otis Graham, the eloquent activist and author who exposed racism and detailed life in the Black upper middle class in his 14 bestselling books, reportedly died last Friday.

He was 59. No cause of death was released.

Lawrence Otis Graham, the eloquent lawyer, activist and author who exposed racism and detailed life in the Black upper middle class in his 14 bestselling books, died Sunday at age 59. (Cuddy & Feder LLP)

Graham was a native of Westchester County, New York, where he documented his experiences working as a busboy, undercover at an all-white Connecticut country club, in the early 1990s. The resulting 1995 book, Member of the Club: Reflections on a Life in a Racially Polarized World, examined the complexities of being Black and middle class in a society that prioritized skin color over ability. 

Four years later, Graham wrote the best-seller Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, a book that glimpsed inside the lives of Black America’s elite and featured a rare glimpse into Black Greek letter organizations, particularly Alpha Phi Alpha and Alpha Kappa Alpha. He was a member of Sigma Pi Phi, a non-collegiate African American fraternity known as the Boule, which predates all other BGLOs. 

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Corporate attorney Graham was a Princeton University and Harvard Law School graduate, and his brother was an orthodontist. Both of his parents were also professionals. In 2000, Graham challenged Republican Sue W. Kelly for her seat in New York’s 19 Congressional district, but he didn’t succeed. 

In a 1995 feature article on Graham, he talked about getting a nose job, which he said he never viewed as an effort to minimize his Blackness. “To view this as anything more than a cosmetic procedure,” he maintained, “would be to suggest that the culture, feelings and history of Black people are awfully superficial.” 

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His writing, he said, was a reflection of his life. “That’s the problem with being raised in the Black upper-middle class,” Graham wrote. “You are living in a white world but you have to hold on to Black culture. You have to please two groups. One group says you have sold out, and the other never quite accepts you.” 

In announcing his death Sunday, Westchester County Executive George Latimer said Graham’s writing “particularly struck a chord as he described growing up Black, well-educated, articulate and accomplished, and still facing prejudice and racism in this society.” 

Graham was married to Pamela Thomas-Graham, a corporate executive. The couple has three children. 

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