By ESME FAIRBAIRN
CLAREMONT, Calif. – The only response to racial prejudice is a life dedicated to activism, according to a Black family who has navigated the simultaneous pain and beauty of undiversified spaces.
In 1997, Rhonda Foster and her husband, Ruett lost their 7-year-old son, Evan, to gun violence in Los Angeles. Rhonda spoke to the reality of a mundane task – picking up her son’s soccer trophy – escalating to a devastating tragedy.
“He was still warm … I caressed his cheek and told him I was sorry,” Rhonda Foster told the Los Angeles Times just days after the murder.
Losing their son was a major local story that made the front page of the Times. The media, however, added to Rhonda Foster’s grief by attempting to portray her as a single mother by cropping her husband from photographs at Evan’s funeral, promoting the stereotype of struggling, single Black mothers.
“This happens to our people all the time,” she said alongside her husband and second son, Alec, in a presentation last week to a group of college journalism students.
The Fosters currently run rehabilitation programming for young men in prisons. Ruett Foster works with the organization Defense-Initiated Victim Outreach, which he says has been a powerful journey that is life-changing for everyone involved.
The constant reminder that he is a Black man sparks Ruett Foster’s action against systemic racism, he said. The trauma surrounding perpetual encounters with white men calling him the n-word establishes a sense of personal invisibility that he works hard to demolish for himself and all people of color in the U.S.
“I am always a Black man,” Ruett said when asked if he was answering a question from the perspective of a citizen or as a Black man.
Alec Foster, a 2019 University of Arizona graduate, has no personal memories of his brother’s murder as he was just 10 months old. Nevertheless, he noted the difficulties of constantly reliving that moment. Much of his college work focused on gun violence and the beneficial potentials of another gun ban, like the U.S. saw in 1994.
“Evan was murdered at the hands of an assault weapon,” Alec said. “I just feel that they’re not weapons that should be in the hands of civilians. They are designed to murder.”
There is always “subtle and overt racism,” Alec told the students. He recalled an experience he and his mother had at a shopping mall when they overheard blatant derogatory slurs about their appearance from a nearby group of white teenagers.
The Fosters both attended and met at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Coming from Los Angeles, Ruett described the undiversified community of the white privileged student body in the late ’70s. Rhonda came to Pitzer after attending a predominantly white school in Westchester, New York.
Ruett Foster is the senior pastor of Culver City’s Community Bible Church, where he says the family’s faith in God has been central to their approach to a life of activism. He has served on the Board of Trustees of Pitzer College since 2016, where he is head of the Diversity Committee. His role as the only Black member of Pitzer’s board has been challenging, especially this academic year as he tries to bring the Black Lives Matter cause to the forefront of the college’s actions.
Rhonda and Ruett have been recognized by Pitzer College’s distinguished alumni award and there is an annual Evan Foster Scholar in the name of their son. Together, they have received multiple awards for their commitment to ending racist prejudice.
(Written by Esme Fairbairn; Sept. 29, 2020)