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Coach Prime uplifts Boulder’s Black community



Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that a lot of land was free when Denver was first established

Coach Prime is injecting a “joyous vitality” into Boulder’s Black community — something that Annett James has never seen in her 40 years living in Boulder County.

James, the president of the Boulder County NAACP, said Coach Prime is encouraging Boulder’s Black community to be their authentic selves because he is unapologetic about his Black identity.

“He’s expanding, I think, how one may be themselves,” James said, adding, “If you can feel free to express yourself in a way that brings along your culture and your heritage, that’s got to be empowering and a feeling of freedom.”

Many Black people in the Boulder community commonly feel the need to “code switch,” James said, acting one way around each other and acting differently in a white-dominant place like Boulder due to fear of retaliation.

“(Coach Prime) is breathing some sense of community into Boulder that Boulder is severely lacking,” James said, adding, “It gives us something to rally for, and I think when you get to rally for one thing in an entire community it builds a stronger, more concerned, caring community.”

Reiland Rabaka, the founding director of the Center for African & African American Studies at CU Boulder, said Coach Prime’s authenticity is inspiring, and bringing people together from all walks of life. He’s a relatable figure, with his tenacity in recent losses and determination to rebuild the CU Buffs football team — 4-8 in its first season under his direction — into something great.

“The guy is unapologetically African American and he can show that we can be who we are,” Rabaka said.

Jude Landsman, the vice president of the Boulder County NAACP, said Prime, named Thursday by Sports Illustrated as its Sportsperson of the Year, is providing an indirect positivity about Black people to the Boulder community.

“He presents a positive role model. He presents an invigorating role model,” Landsman said. “Coach Prime is unapologetically Black, and that is inspiring.”

Rabaka said Coach Prime, who as the electrifying athlete Deion Sanders is the only person to have played in both a World Series and Super Bowl (winning rings with both the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys), has “completely energized” the Black community throughout Boulder County.

Sunday marks one year to the day it was announced that he would be the next head coach of the then-beleaguered CU football team, fresh off the debacle of a 1-11 season.

“Coach Prime has let the entire nation, if not the entire world, know that Boulder County actually has some Black folk out here,” Rabaka said. “That in and of itself is a win.”

Boulder’s racial climate

According to U.S. Census data, Black and African American people make up 1.3% of Boulder County’s total population. In Boulder, it’s 1.1%.

Rabaka said most people don’t think of any kind of Black community in Boulder County, which is why it’s such a big deal Coach Prime turned a spotlight on them.

“I have gone three, four, five days a week and not seen another African or African American living here in Boulder County,” Rabaka said. “Unless I go to the campus, you hardly see us. We’re erased or rendered invisible or, because of money, we’re boxed out of it financially.”

James said Boulder does not have the demographics it has by accident.

She said great people come to Boulder but rarely stick around because it’s not a community that has the cultural and professional amenities that many Black people want.

“They want good schools where their kids are going to be able to flourish and thrive. They want an opportunity to become a homeowner,” James said. “There are so many factors … and Boulder has these really inflated housing prices. The schools have never been the best places for Black children to go and thrive, and policing is always scary. Boulder has a lot of good, but it also has a lot of issues it needs to address.”

For many, some of those issues were underscored by the 2019 incident in which a Black Naropa student was confronted by multiple Boulder police while picking up trash on property where he lived. One officer, who drew both a stun gun and then his service weapon, has since resigned, prior to the conclusion of a disciplinary process. The city of Boulder agreed to settle potential civil claims brought by that student, Zayd Atkinson.

Katrina Miller and Beret Strong are the directors of the documentary “This is [Not] Who We Are,” an award-winning film that explores the history of Black people in Boulder and the lived experiences of its Black residents.

Katrina Miller and Beret Strong pose for a photo with the Boulder International Film Festival People's Choice Award for their documentary film "This is [Not] Who We Are" on Friday, Nov. 24. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Katrina Miller and Beret Strong pose for a photo with the Boulder International Film Festival People’s Choice Award for their documentary film “This is [Not] Who We Are” on Nov. 24. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Strong said Black miners and farmers arrived early in Boulder’s history, with the first record of a Black person living in Boulder in 1870.

“White people in this community to this day don’t realize how early that history began,” Strong said.

She said Boulder was formed to be a racist community by being elite, and it started as early as the city’s founding. For example, the price of lots when Boulder was established cost $1,000, and in Denver, lots were free. Employment discrimination and expensive housing cut them out of Boulder, and they were refused medical care. Treatment in schools was also a huge issue that remains a problem today, Strong said.

“We’re still grappling with the fact that we are not where we want to be, and we have to keep working,” Strong said. “We’re just not there yet. We hear it from people regularly about what it takes, the fortitude it takes, to stay in the community as a person of color.”

Rabaka said the racism in Boulder is often very subtle. When first arriving in Boulder, Rabaka experienced “intense cultural alienation” and “incessant racial microaggressions” that made Boulder one of the most unwelcoming places Rabaka had ever lived.

“I think that there’s a lot of denial and complicity,” Rabaka said. “I think that Boulder has an image of itself that’s not reality. I think there’s a lot of fantasy in Boulder County, and the reality is that this is arguably one of the most culturally homogenous college towns in the United States of America.”

Rabaka has since stayed in Boulder for the last 20 years with a vision to make it a better place for Black people.

“I have chosen to stay out here because I can see the great promise of the University of Colorado Boulder, and the hiring of Coach Prime is one of the crowning achievements of this current cycle of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Rabaka said. “He immediately brought a kind of attention and let people know that wow, somebody at his level, a BIPOC person at his level, can be comfortable in Boulder.”

Miller said she does feel like the racial climate in Boulder is improving and that Coach Prime is part of that shift. At the same time, she doesn’t feel like it’s Coach Prime’s job to uplift an entire Black community.

“What might be good (about Coach Prime) is that the things about Boulder that make it not so progressive and not so liberal, they’re not so under the rug anymore and they’re not so hidden,” Miller said.

“Some of these things are going to come out more, and there’s going to be more of an examination on it because Deion Sanders is here and CU has more attention on it. So, I hope that it holds our university and our community more accountable because people are watching. The country is watching us.”

Miller said she’d like to see Coach Prime become involved in situations regarding race on campus as they come up — by being a leader, calling it out and saying what’s needed.

“Again, he’s only human. And I hate to add so much pressure to a person who was here to do the job of football,” Miller said, adding, “But it would be wonderful if he did get involved in our local politics and knew who some of the Black leaders are here, and if he met us and got an understanding of what we have been doing and what we’re doing now and try to see where he can get involved.”

Coach Prime was not made available for an interview for this story.

Fighting racism

Rabaka said if Coach Prime sticks around, it could “absolutely” lead to Boulder, Boulder County and CU Boulder becoming more diverse.

“Coach Prime came out here for the same reason I did,” Rabaka said. “There’s incredible opportunities out here. There are rich resources, and if we use them right, we can do something unprecedented.”

James said the longer Coach Prime stays, the better the odds are of a shift in Boulder’s demographics.

“There’s always been Black people in this community, it’s just we’ve never been able to substantially grow our numbers and that’s for a lot of reasons,” James said. “I do think if Coach Prime stuck around a while, it certainly wouldn’t hurt, and it could be a positive move toward changing those demographics.”

Landsman said the welcoming of Coach Prime and promotion of his message is unusual, and it remains to be seen whether Boulder will become more welcoming.

“Let’s see 10 years down the line if Boulder has become a more welcoming place for Black people to go,” Landsman said.

James said Boulder’s welcoming culture has ebbed and flowed over time. It was a progressive, intellectual community when she first arrived, but she noticed those interests and values seemed to dissipate over time.

“Coach Prime is bringing back, in a different way, the interest in wanting to know different cultures,” James said.

Coach Prime is fighting racism in Boulder, Rabaka said, but not through conventional methods.

For example, on Feb 1, the Center for African & African American Studies held its grand opening at CU Boulder. Despite it being national signing day, Coach Prime attended the grand opening for more than an hour.

Rabaka said Coach Prime told him he would send his kids to the CAAAS, recognizing their needs for a community outside of athletics at CU Boulder.

Coach Prime is also fighting racism by disrupting stereotypes, Rabaka said, and simply showing up and doing his job at a high level.

“That’s saying everything without saying something,” Rabaka said, adding, “Deion Sanders helps to affirm African Americans’ full humanity.

“It may not be a conventional critique of racism or combating of racism, but I think that his excellence in athletics is yet another reminder of the grandeur and majesty of African Americans’ humanity.”

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