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Cincinnati president challenges perceptions of race

By Marta Lawrence

Gregory Williams, the president of the University of Cincinnati, lived the first 10 years of his life as a well-off white kid in Virginia. At age 10, Williams’ life was rocked when his father lost the family business, his mother abandoned him and his brother, and he learned that his great-grandfather was a freed slave.

Williams’ tale of discovering his racial identity and the impact it had on his perceptions of race and privilege is the topic of his New York Times best-selling book “Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black.” He recounted his story at Thursday’s Association-wide luncheon, sponsored by the NCAA’s Office of Inclusion.

The discovery of his mix-raced heritage “marked an undeniable shift in my life,” Williams told the crowd. “Only then did I see how unjust America was.”

Shortly after making the discovery, Williams, his father and brother traveled to southern Indiana, where they lived in a poor black neighborhood. It was a life between worlds.

 Williams said the white kids saw him as black and the black kids saw him as white. Neither group accepted him, and he and his brother were forced to learn to fight at an early age.

Despite his academic talents, Williams’ school file had a special note attached instructing teachers to “not be fooled” by his appearance – that he was actually “colored.”

 Williams rejects the notion of a post-racial America, citing achievement gaps such as vast differences in wealth and opportunity for minorities. As a president of a major institution, Williams said he now has the opportunity to help increase minority representation in higher education.

“You have to put some time and effort into it,” he said, noting that establishing a pipeline of minority candidates is critical. Presidential leadership is paramount, he said.

Thursday’s luncheon opened with a video celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX. NCAA President Mark Emmert used the opportunity to underscore the NCAA’s commitment to diversity and furthering opportunities for all student-athletes.

“This is a task that is never done,” Emmert said. “We have to take the progress and success we’ve had and move forward from there.”

To that end, NCAA Executive Vice President Bernard Franklin (also the NCAA’s chief inclusion officer) on Wednesday announced a series of initiatives aimed at increasing minority representation. The recommendations include a summit that will bring together search-firm recruiters to increase the applicant pool to include more women and minorities.