At their core, members of Congress are merely performers. They’re actors whose job is to convince those in the voting public that they are their higher moral selves. For some it’s easy, and for others … well, even the idea of being a virtuous, upstanding, morally just person is difficult to stomach.
Morality, the dance: a tangolike shuffle that includes being honest, forthcoming and basically all the things that Republicans are not.
And this brings us to the adoptive son of color as stage prop, which usually works like this: Be a white politician, most likely male, and wait until a person of color in Congress notes that you don’t know the difficulties of being (insert race) in America, and then watch as the offended white congressman wields his “adopted” child like a sword or a pointer.
It’s all very theatrical. Of course, that son will not actually be adopted. And of course there will be difficulty figuring out the son’s real connection to said politician, but that hasn’t stopped everything from already happening.
I call it “pulling a Gaetz,” after Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and his purportedly adopted son Nestor — who has a whole-ass dad (who is not Gaetz) and was never actually adopted.
You can now also call it “pulling a Johnson.”
Let me explain.
The year was 2020 and George Floyd’s death had torn America right down its racial seam when little-known Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) gave an interview with PBS, in which he noted that Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was “an act of murder.” Johnson then added that his Black son, Michael, helped him truly understand racism in America.
It would have been a collective gasp if anyone, at the time, knew who the hell Mike Johnson was. But no one knew the politician and, more importantly, no one cared. And then because House Republicans couldn’t get their act together, the obscure representative from Louisiana became speaker of the House. That’s right — next in line should something ever happen to the president and vice president.
And just like that, journalists went digging around every sound clip that Johnson ever made and what they found was this: He’s a highly conservative Christian and a Southern Baptist who abhors abortion and gay rights. He’s also an election denier who tirelessly tried to overturn the 2020 election that everyone, including the Christian God, knows was won by Joe Biden.
Oh, and then they found the clip in which Johnson suggested that he had an adopted Black son. But you know what the press couldn’t find? A photo of Michael in the Johnsons’ family photos. There was no info on the son who Johnson claimed helped him realize that his biological child Jack would have a very different path than Michael.
“Michael being a Black American and Jack being white Caucasian, they have different challenges,” Johnson said in 2020. “My son Jack has an easier path. He just does.”
It turns out that years ago, when Johnson and his wife were just newlyweds, they took in a teenage Michael. Johnson has referenced the experience as something like “The Blind Side.” (Let’s just hope that Johnson means the fake movie version, and not the real one in which athlete Michael Oher learned that he was never actually adopted and the family claiming to have his best interest at heart had instead been ripping him off, allegedly.)
Despite no formal adoption process, Michael reportedly lived with the Johnsons, who would also have four biological children. And while Michael would later claim that Johnson kept him out of prison and on a straight path — he would earn his GED and graduate from a Job Corps program, despite minor run-ins with the law — the Johnsons would gain something, too.
In Michael, they now had a shield and a sword against voting for Black rights. Johnson has made reference to Michael as his reason for not supporting reparations. Johnson has also spoken for Michael, as he seems to know what Michael would want him to do — despite Michael now being a 40-year-old man who lives in Los Angeles, has four kids of his own and can speak for himself.
“In his testimony on racial reparations before a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Johnson said that Michael, too, opposed reparations because it defied an ‘important tradition of self-reliance,’” The New York Times reported.
This is the convenience of having a faux-adopted son of color. He becomes morphable — a fable, a warning, a cautionary tale, an allegory but never quite a full-fledged living being. And don’t give me the “They kept Michael out of family photos to protect his anonymity” foolishness, as if the Johnsons want him to live an uninvolved life. If that’s the case, maybe stop bringing him up. A few days after Johnson won his new speaker role, DailyMail.com didn’t just locate Michael, but interviewed him, found all of his mug shots and learned that Michael had nothing but glowing things to say about the Johnsons.
“I always felt loved like I was a part of their family,” Michael told DailyMail.com. “They have been there for me when I have been lost and in the deepest valleys, and I know it was hard at times to constantly help someone who didn’t always get it right. I thank God all the time for giving them both the strength, patience, and unwavering faith that inspired me to do better and be better.”
Cue the sentimental band music as the credits roll. We’ve all seen this movie before.
Remember Nestor, whom Gaetz suggested he’d adopted only for everyone to learn that there was never an adoption? Remember how he was introduced as a “local student” and then later as a House page? Then we learned that Gaetz had once dated Nestor’s sister, and claimed that his bond with Nestor was so special that he continued a kind of mentorship with him? Well, we didn’t hear about this supposed adoption until Gaetz needed someone to grandstand and showboat about to demonstrate that he, too, has a stake in the fight against police brutality and people of color.
It was way back in the yesteryear of 2020 (by rule, yesteryears are all years we’d like to forget) and then-Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) was holding court during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. He was trying to explain to his colleagues that there was a desperate need for police reform as cops had become an “imminent threat” to Black men.
“People are dying as we talk,” he said. “I am not interested in moving at a snail’s pace. I’m not interested in a watered-down bill that mandates nothing.”
Richmond referenced his son and the fear he has as a father.
Gaetz then proceeded to slow-walk his interruption, knowing that he had a Nestor up his sleeve. Gaetz asked if Richmond was implying that none of the representatives had children of color.
“Matt, Matt, stop. I’m not about to get sidetracked by the color of our children,” Richmond replied. “It is not about the color of your kids. It is about Black males, Black people in the streets, that are getting killed. And if one of them happens to be your kid, I’m concerned about him too, and clearly, I’m more concerned about him than you are.”
“Excuse me, you’re claiming you’re more concerned for my family than I do?” Gaetz said, yelling, “Who in the hell do you think you are?”
And this is what the fake adopted child of color affords members of Congress: enough of a stake in the fight for Black lives not to look racist, but not enough of an investment to actually change policy or vote for the betterment of people of color. Nestor is a Cuban immigrant, yet Gaetz has voted against just about every immigration bill and even introduced a bill wanting “illegal aliens” deported at the heart of the pandemic.
The Protect American Nationals During Emergencies by Mitigating the Immigration Crisis Act, or PANDEMIC Act (no one loves an acronym like a member of Congress), would push for “aliens in detention during a national emergency” to be deported even if their detention began before the COVID-19 outbreak.
It’s all an act — all of it. Just drawn-out theatrics by heartless right-wing politicians who’d rather disingenuously mimic caring than actually care. Because actually caring means you can’t turn a blind eye to suffering, and why do that when you can just act like you have a heart?