A week ago Monday was the day we remember Martin Luther King Jr. and for many people, his “I Have a Dream” speech is the first thing they recall about him.
In some ways Joel Foster is living both the American Dream and the one for which King is famous. Raised by parents who never went to college, he graduated from one of the best business schools in the country, owns an Edward Jones office on Madison Street, has a home in the ‘burbs, and his wife and two children are doing well.
The 56-year-old went to a high school in New Jersey which was about 60% white and 40% black, where white teachers “seemed to care, saw potential in me, and pushed me to excel. They didn’t tell me I couldn’t go to college.” He became emotional as he told the story of why his father’s education stopped at high school graduation.
“My father got the message that he couldn’t go college from his own father because that was the mentality at that time,” said Foster. “My father had a chance to play football for Syracuse University, but his father told him he would have to get a job. My father lived to see me graduate from Babson College, but imagine how he would have felt had he lived to see my son, his grandson, graduate from Syracuse University in 2013.”
“I can say from own experience,” he said, “that there has been change. Affirmative action helped some minorities get into places that would not have accepted them no matter how good their grade point average was, and that a black man holds the highest office in the land shows there is opportunity.”
There’s a “but,” however.
“To me, Obama getting elected president also shows how little change we’ve made,” Foster said. “I mean laughing at and heckling the president while he’s giving a speech to congress is unheard of. Why can you do that? Because he’s an African American.
“That was an eye-opener for me because I was ‘drinking the Kool Aid,’ I was believing that it was getting better,” he said.
Another eye-opener was an experience he had at Babson College. Because he was on the basketball team and also had a work-study job in the gym, he would sometimes take prospective athletes on a tour of the campus. When he took one family into the cafeteria, “immediately I got asked why all the black people were sitting together at one table. I was like ‘Wow.’ You don’t know that at the next table they’re all Jewish. And at the table next to that, they’re all Italian.”
“That opened my eyes,” he explained. “You can’t pick out a Jewish person all the time. You can’t always pick out an Italian person. But I can’t escape being black, and race was the first thing they saw.”
Foster had another eye-opening experience more recently. He was driving through Indiana when a state trooper pulled him over. Here’s how Foster recalls the exchange:
Trooper (a white guy): Did you know you know you were speeding?
Foster: I was doing 80. I’m sorry.
Trooper: Where are you going?
Foster: I’m heading for New York. I have this fundraiser I’m going to.
Trooper: Is this your car?
Trooper: (As Foster reaches over to pick up his register) What are you doing?
Foster: I’m going to show you my registration because you asked me if this was my car.
Trooper: How long have you had it?
The middle class, Babson College graduate, financial advisor, father of two, Forest Park Chamber of Commerce board member, mentor for inner-city youth said, “It took everything I had not to say something stupid.”
During the interview we got talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, in which the author contends that every black person is afraid because they know that no matter how hard-working and law-abiding they may be, what happened to Trayvon Martin could happen to them.
“Am I afraid?” said Foster, referring to the grilling he underwent by the state trooper. “Oh I am afraid because when I’m out of my element [his home, his office, Forest Park area] I’m just another black guy. We will never be equal as long as you look at the color of my skin and on that basis make a judgment about me.”
Talking about how Caucasians are the only non-hyphenated race — i.e. African-Americans or Asian-Americans — Foster said, “I can’t say I’m African. I haven’t spent a day of my life in Africa. I was born here, so honestly I should just be an American.”
The man who teaches his clients how to manage their money has nothing against the Dream — be it that of Dr. King or the rags-to-riches pursuit — as long as it is told without added illusions.
He explained, “My kids could not connect to Black Lives Matter because they’ve never been put in that situation. When my son was in high school, he would have this group of girls come over which I would call the “rainbow coalition.”
“There is nothing wrong with that,” I would tell him. “You can date whomever you want. I’m not telling you who you can bring home. What I’m telling you is that when she takes you home, be careful because the daddy on that side might not like the fact that this African American is walking in the door with his daughter.”