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Rapids Head Coach Robin Fraser on racism in America, being a Black coach in MLS, and breaking the cycle

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The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor—and the ensuing protests—have prompted professional athletes, managers, and Front Office executives to use their platforms to speak out about the persistence of racism, institutional racism, and police brutality.

John A. Babiak - Photog_JohnB

We know Colorado Rapids Head Coach Robin Fraser as an accomplished athlete, coach, and a model citizen. He is a member of the Palmetto High School Alumni Hall of Fame in Miami, Florida. He led his Division II Florida International University to an NCAA Championship and during his senior year was a finalist for the Hermann Trophy. He went on to have successful careers in both the American Professional Soccer and Major League Soccer Leagues and had 27 appearances for the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team. Before joining the Rapids as their head coach in August of 2019, he was a longtime assistant coach for Real Salt Lake, the New York Red Bulls, and Toronto FC.

Robin Fraser is also a Black man in America.

Born in Jamaica in 1967, just five years after the island country gained its independence from the United Kingdom, he grew up in Miami and became a U.S. citizen in June of 1986.

Fraser recalls one of his first experiences with racism in the United States. “I was 11 years old. It was January, and I believe my first day of 6th grade year, at the end of school, there was a fight between whites and Blacks. I said ‘what the hell is going on in this country?’ I had not seen racial prejudice in Jamaica… in Jamaica, there was more class prejudice—the rich and the poor. So to come here, and on my first day to be involved in something like that, was really kind of shocking.”

“The way it feels to be Black in America is kind of interesting because this situation, what is going on right now, is really opening people’s eyes,” he continued. “Given how many incidents there have been over the past several of the years—Eric Garner and Freddy Gray—somehow I felt when this [George Floyd murder] happened, this basically was the tipping point.”

It reminded Fraser of an incident that happened when he was 14. “I was riding to my friend’s house on my bicycle and to get there I had to cut through a strip mall parking lot, like the size of a Target parking lot. I am riding along and some guy pulls up beside me and says ‘hey!’ I stop on my bike and came over to his car window and leaned in so I can see him. He goes ‘you and anybody been messing around with cars here?’ He motioned ahead of me.”

“As I looked up I saw another Black young man riding a bicycle ahead of me. I had not noticed him, but to this white gentleman, obviously, the thought was that two Black people riding bicycles, we must be together.” Fraser responded that he did not know anything about it and the man then said “You better not be” and proceeded to pull a gun out of his glove compartment. He pointed the gun at the teenager and said, “because I will blow your f*cking head off.” Fraser immediately tried to de-escalate the situation and said, “I don’t know who that is, and I am not messing around with cars, and I don’t know anything you are talking about.”

Fraser was very shaken from the incident. “I remember for days, a week, riding my bicycle to school, looking over my shoulder, knowing that it is so improbable that this man, who happened to see me in the parking lot, would have followed me to my home and was going to appear on my way to school. But I could not shake that feeling. Is he going to be here or around the corner, behind me?”

Forty-plus years later the event still haunts him. “I think of this tiny experience I had and the trauma that caused me. And then I think about what I hear about some of the stories of what people go through in the hands of the police. That little incident caused me that sort of trauma, imagine what that does for someone who has been involved in so much more, with the police, who are supposed to be our protectors. And the level of abuse that we see happening. Think about the level of trauma for these people, the people who witnessed it, and the people in their community. It is very very damaging.”

“I think that it is really, really underestimated by a lot of people who have no idea what it is like to be fearful, or very conscious of being Black, in kind of every situation.” Fraser clarified. “Those two statements should be separate—you are fearful in certain situations, but you are always conscious of being Black [different] in a white area, and when predominantly white situations.”

His words made me reflect on my own upbringing during the 1960s and 70s in an ethnically diverse—and often tense—New York. I witnessed many adults and my older-than-me contemporaries hurl racial and ethnic slurs, demeaning remarks, and threatening declarations. I would hear these foul sentiments in school, from the stoops above our community sidewalks, from the back bench-seat of cars, and volleyed from the stands of sports stadiums at those on the field who were entertaining us.

In 1984-85, during his freshman/sophomore of year in college playing soccer for Florida International, an opposing player called Fraser the n-word. “I was furious. After the game, I walked by the player and didn’t shake his hand. I took two steps and turned around and said you called me a n*gger, you piece of sh*t, then shook his hand. I was seventeen. That is how I dealt with it then. That was the first time another player said that to me. I was so caught off guard.”

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

Being one of the few Black head coaches in MLS

The former defender is a member of a small club of Black head coaches in MLS: Patrick Vieira, Aron Winter, Ruud Gullit, and Denis Hamlett.

Before coming to the Rapids in 2019, Fraser was head coach of Chivas USA from 2011-2012. “What I have come to realize is how many Black players feel as if that would never happen—that a Black person wasn’t going to become a head coach,” he explained. “And how a big deal it is that there is a Black head coach in the league.”

“It just speaks to that same angst, the same awareness that you are different, and the feeling that perhaps the futility that, that’s not going to happen,” he continued. “I did not realize how impactful it would be on Black players in MLS. What you are seeing in protests is a lot of frustration about inequality. We talk about liberty and justice for all, and there a feeling that is not is always the case. And there is a feeling of inequality. I think the impact of that is when a Black person becomes a head coach in the league, I think that Black players in the league feel there is less futility to deal with. There are opportunities that exist, and a Black person is being given an opportunity. Whereas maybe prior to that, people felt like this is not going to happen for us.”

The continued need for generational education to break the cycle

Fraser is not only an example for his players and other players around the league, but for his two daughters. Recent events and coast-to-coast protests have led to many conversations about what is happening and why.

“The fact is, there are things in this country that will take generations to change,” he said. “By that, I mean racism is not inherent. Racism is a learned behavior. No one comes out of the womb a racist. As racism continues, there are people who have their own beliefs. They teach their children and they teach their children.”

To make social changes requires taking time to become educated, and then realize that we are all just human beings. If we don’t listen, educate ourselves, and appreciate one another, this vicious and polarizing cycle will continue to perpetuate itself, as it has in America since the era of Reconstruction.

Fraser believes how you carry yourself is one of the best ways you can influence change and our country is at a crossroads. “There are enough people who are outraged about what has transpired and what continues to transpire. You see all sorts of protests. I talked to my daughters about one of the most heartening things is to see the number of protesters who aren’t just Black protesters. Their ages—so many young people. You feel like this could be a moment in time that could change this country going forward. It is one thing to protest for yourself, and your own type of people, it is another, to protest for people because it is the right thing to do. And we see more of that now than over the past years. So many Americans, outside of Black Americans, are now starting, possibly for the first time, to understand what it feels like to be Black in America. And they are recognizing that it is not right.”

More Americans, of all walks, ages, and professions, are recognizing that stereotyping, ethnic biases, and all forms of racism are wrong. Roger Goodell and the NFL made an about-face in recent days and now encourages all to speak out and peacefully protest. Leading NASCAR drivers and their teams have voiced support for George Floyd protests, equal rights, and against police brutality. Numerous MLS players and coaches have stepped up and spoken out including Columbus Crew’s Darlington Nagbe. FC DallasReggie Cannon, Philadelphia Union’s Ray Gaddis, Toronto FC’s Ifunanyachi Achara, LAFC’s Mark-Anthony Kaye, and SKC and DC United head coaches Peter Vermes and Ben Olsen have also used their respective platforms to speak up. Rapids’ Kei Kamara has participated in Denver protests.

Fraser hopes that this sweeping movement will spur young adults to register to vote and cast their votes in the upcoming elections in a major step toward making change.

During a recent Class of 2020 virtual commencement address, former President Barack Obama encouraged graduates to “think about the values that matter to them the most. And even if all seems broken, have faith in our democracy. Participate and vote. Don’t fall for easy cynicism that says nothing can change or there’s only one way to bring about change.”

For resources on examining your own biases and what to do next: