Lawrence Otis Graham is a white man’s black writer—the type of author who makes a career out of revealing aspects of race that, while shocking to whites, are simple facts of life for blacks. Graham’s undercover act as a busboy at a prominent Connecticut country club landed him the cover of New York magazine.
Graham’s time as a member of the serving class revealed that white people at exclusive country clubs have a penchant for racism. That Graham’s story actually contained any shock value says something about the state of American race relations. That Graham had to go undercover to figure it all out says even more about him. Liberal whites love to hear about racism from people like Graham, an author who will share their drop-jawed indignation as opposed to chastising the arrogance of their ignorance.
In his new book, Our Kind of People, Graham has a new gimmick: Instead of broadcasting to white people things that black people accept as true, he tells white people things that black people couldn’t care less about. Graham’s big surprise is that—close your eyes now—black people can be snobs, too!
People is an unprovocative profile/memoir of black America’s bluebloods. Graham analyzes nearly every aspect of elite black society, from summer camps to sororities to boarding schools. He also dedicates special sections of the book to examining black America’s elite in major cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Washington. Interspersed throughout are details of Graham’s own life as a member of that elite. You learn about how his black peers viewed his decision to attend a white school as well as how he came to join the Boulé, a men’s club for members of black high society.
Graham spins us through his childhood years, explaining how he felt inadequate because his parents were new-money, and only wealthy as opposed to filthy rich. Graham also details his travails over having too dark a complexion and too-curly hair. As he whizzes through his adult years, you find Graham at Princeton and later a proud young member of the Boulé.
What you do not find anywhere in People is one iota of analysis or critical thought. Instead, Graham would have you believe his book is an innocent snapshot of black America’s Rockefellers and Carnegies. But in reality it is, at best, a textbook exhibition of apologism. An ugly undercurrent runs beneath it, attempting to justify the elitism of Graham’s peers.
Not only does Graham examine the members of the black elite as people who care nothing for the struggles of their less economically endowed brethren, he accepts their attitude. “What I now recall I was lacking…” writes Graham about his childhood, “was any real sense of the anger and dissatisfaction that black America was expressing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Martin Luther King had been shot, cities had been burned…and yet we were learning how to ride horses, make leather belts, or commandeer a small yacht.” As critical as this passage sounds, there is no lamenting in the next sentence—or virtually anywhere else in the book.
That Graham’s privilege disconnected him from the struggles of poor, working-class, and middle-class black America reveals an essential element of the people he profiles: They are not a black elite, but a white elite in a Hershey wrapper. Black identity, like any ethnic identity, is more than a matter of simple genealogy; it also involves culture and politics. Fighting against white racism is at the heart of black identity, so much so that a generation ago, men who were considered pro-black were called race men. But Graham’s interviewees have only a surface interest in struggle. The only fight they deem worthy is the battle to be white.
At its worst, this psychosis is manifest when light-skinned, straight-haired blacks cast off their identity and literally become white. More often, though, the desire to be white is manifest in more innocent ways. The reasoning that members of Graham’s elite use to justify their lifestyle illustrates their covert desire to be rich white people. “Today’s black child should want to be introduced to everything that the smartest white child has access to,” argues one woman. “Why is it okay for well-educated whites to be ambitious—and then not okay for blacks?” asks another. But “ambitious” is really a euphemism for something far more sinister. (Drug dealers, after all, can be said to be ambitious.)
If there is a white elite, these folks argue, why can’t there be a black elite? So intent are they on aping white America that the nature of such an elite is never brought into question. Instead, Graham’s subjects pursue an illogical argument that assumes, first, that black and white people are the same, and second, that being elite is an honorable goal. Like Graham’s subjects, many of today’s conformist black leaders consistently argue not that blacks must be treated as human beings, but that blacks must be equal to whites in every aspect. But what it means to be equal is rarely analyzed.
Copycat logic can be seen all through black America. The debate over slave Sally Hemings’ affair with her owner, Thomas Jefferson, is a classic example. Hemings’ descendants have never questioned the nature of the relationship—nor Jefferson’s hypocritical stance on slavery (condemning the practice yet owning slaves himself). They simply want a place at the table with Jefferson’s white descendants. It’s also the type of logic that leads both integrationists and nationalists to honor dubious characters in history like the Buffalo Soldiers simply because they were black. The fact that they slaughtered scores of Indians is never questioned.
Because most of us are victims of classism and racism, black Americans are in a prime position to question the nature of American society. Black people, whose very identities are tied up in a legacy of struggle against oppression, are the most likely candidates to save this country from its own excesses. But, as a colleague once told me, it seems that the only problem black people have with slavery is that they were the slaves. People exhibits this problem: The folks in the book, only a century out of the worst kind of poverty, refuse to question the world they live in.
When People is not profoundly foolish, it is simply profoundly annoying. The book is laced with little anecdotes in which Graham revels in snobbishness. In one instance, he recalls, after discovering as a child that a friend of his has two live-in servants, asking his father, “How are we going to compete with that?” In another, Graham recollects a white college mate’s telling him, “You’re just the kind of black that would fit in.” Graham seems in no way indignant about the remark and simply keeps relating his tale.
When I was kid, we had cats at our school who talked differently, wore different clothes, and preferred U2 to Public Enemy. We had names for kids like that: Oreos, wannabes, white boys. Later, with maturity, I decided that those kids didn’t want to be white—they just had different taste. I dismissed the idea of the Oreo as the invention of a juvenile mind. But now, in reading a book like People, I understand that there was some wisdom in my youth. Oreos and wannabes do exist, and they are not simply kids who aren’t versed in Ebonics, live in the suburbs, and worship Kurt Cobain; they are adults who define success as being as far away from their collective identity as possible.
The real Oreos, more than wanting to be white in the physical or cultural sense, want the freedom to be as apathetic as their white counterparts. They want the comfort of having to deal with racism only as something that keeps them out of the local country club. People is an unmoving account of a sad bunch of wannabes, whose absence of critical thought is rivaled only by that of Graham himself. CP