Michael Longfellow plays Mike Johnson and Devon Walker plays his son in the SNL cold open on Oct. 28.

The New House Speaker Claims to Have a Black Son and Everything About It Is Super Weird

In the days since House Republicans elected some guy named Mike Johnson to be their new speaker, we have been subjected to learning who this guy is and every horrifying thing he has ever done, said, or supported. But one of the stranger revelations concerned the Louisiana congressman’s past statements about his Black son.

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Johnson’s campaign website describes him as a father of four, and family photos show him with his wife Kelly and their four very white children, whose names are listed as Hannah, Abigail, Jack, and Will. No one else is mentioned or pictured. In the past, though, Johnson has also referred to another son—a Black teen named Michael whom the couple took in as newlyweds.

Johnson has said they continue to keep in touch with Michael, who is now an adult with a family of his own, and think of him as part of their family. Although referring to him as a son multiple times over the years, he has been vague about their exact relationship. A spokesperson said the couple never formally adopted him because of the “lengthy process.”

Why is it that multiple male members of Congress have undefined relationships with boys they met as teens? Around the same time Johnson started talking about Michael, Congressman Matt Gaetz revealed the existence of his “son” Nestor, a young Cuban man whom Gaetz claimed to have raised. Maybe Johnson’s relationship with Michael is also one defined by love, not paperwork.

Not really feeling the love here, though. In addition to not appearing in family photos online, Michael’s name has not appeared in official campaign biographies, the man has not been identified by full name, and he has apparently not come forward to claim any relationship with Johnson. In the heightened scrutiny of Johnson’s bio last week, some started questioning whether Michael even existed.

“Is Michael made up? Is he excluded from family pictures?” asked Josh Marshall in a column at Talking Point Memo. “I was so baffled that I went pretty far down that rabbit hole trying to figure out what was going on.”

The mystery even made it into the SNL cold open, with Devon Walker playing the part: “Hey guys, I’m his adult Black son. I’m only 11 years younger than him and I’m kind of a secret. It’s normal. Don’t look into that at all.”

The questions led Johnson’s office to respond, explaining that Michael and his family had asked not to be involved in their public life. “The Speaker has respected that sentiment throughout his career and maintains a close relationship with Michael to this day,” said Corinne Day, his communications director.

Fair enough, I guess. It’s understandable why any family member of a Republican congressman wouldn’t want to admit to that publicly. But the ick factor goes up when you consider that Johnson only seems to mention Michael when the topic of race comes up, like a convenient political prop.

While testifying against slave reparations in 2019, Johnson used Michael’s existence to claim some expertise on the subject of Black people’s experiences. “I personally know the challenges he has faced early in his life. I’ve walked with him through discrimination that he’s had to endure over the years and the hurdles he faced,” Johnson said. In an extra convenient twist, Michael also opposes reparations, at least according to Johnson.

In a 2020 interview with PBS’s Walter Isaacson, Johnson explained the relationship in more cringe terms. He compared his and his wife’s actions to the family in the movie The Blind Side, which has been criticized for centering Sandra Bullock’s character and promoting a white savior narrative. “That was our story, except my Michael was not an NFL prospect.” Making the comparison even more unflattering, Michael Oher, the former NFL star whose story inspired the movie, has sued the Tuohy family who took him in.

The hero complex of it all definitely fits, though. Johnson claims that Michael credits their intervention for saving him from a life of gang, drugs, and prison, or possibly an early death. Unfortunately, the anonymous Michael is unavailable to speak for himself.

However suspect the circumstances, it does appear that the relationship, whatever it was, forced Johnson to face the reality of racism, in a sharp departure from most of his Republican colleagues. Speaking to Isaacson, Johnson compared the experiences of his white son as a teenager with what Michael faced at a similar age, managing to sound surprisingly empathetic for a devout supporter of former president and notorious racist Donald J. Trump.

“The interesting thing about both of these kids, Michael and Jack, is they’re both handsome, articulate, really talented kids, gifted by God to do lots of things,” Johnson said. “But the reality is and no one can tell me otherwise, my son Michael had a harder time than my son Jack is going to have simply because of the color of his skin. And that’s a reality. It’s an uncomfortable, painful one to acknowledge, but people have to recognize that’s a fact.”

Unfortunately, it was only several months later that Johnson negated any good will he might have earned for doing the bare minimum of acknowledging racism. He led efforts in Congress to overturn the valid results of the 2020 election to keep Trump in office, largely based on racist conspiracy theories that aim to nullify and suppress the Black vote, and all to keep a noted racist in power.

As curious as I am about the details of the Michael story, and especially in how Michael himself would tell it, that’s really all we need to know about the new speaker’s views on race.

(featured image: screengrab, NBC)


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Author
Erika Wittekind
Erika Wittekind (she/her) is a contributing writer covering politics and news and has two decades of experience in local news reporting, freelance writing, and nonfiction editing. Her hobbies and special interests include hiking, dancing in the kitchen, trying to raise empathetic teen boys, and keeping plants alive. Find her on Mastodon at @erikalyn.newsie.social.