Simone Biles has cemented herself as the greatest gymnast in history, defying gravity as the three-time all-around world champion, and now an Olympic gold medalist. But that didn’t stop one NBC commentator from callously trying to bring Biles back to the ground.
Al Trautwig, an NBC gymnastics announcer for the games in Rio, caused a stir on Monday when he tweeted about the 19-year-old’s family, insinuating that the gymnast’s adoptive parents weren’t her "real" parents: "They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents."
Trautwig deleted the tweet, and, in a statement emailed to the New York Times by NBC, Trautwig noted his misstep: "I regret that I wasn’t more clear in my wording on the air. I compounded the error on Twitter, which I quickly corrected. To set the record straight, Ron and Nellie are Simone’s parents."
Biles, and her three siblings, were formally adopted by their grandparents, Ron and Nellie Biles, in 2001, after their biological mother, Shannon Biles, who struggled with drug addiction, was no longer able to raise them.
"The social worker called and said the kids were in foster care," Ron Biles told Time magazine in June. "I said, ‘Send them to me.’"
Trautwig’s words, though, drew the ire of adoptive parents, calling out the commentator for undermining the Biles family’s legitimacy.
"When Trautwig publicly denies that Ron and Nellie Biles are Simone's parents, it is a terrible blow to adoptive families everywhere," Carrie Goldman, a journalist at Chicago Now and adoptive mother herself, wrote. "It threatens the legitimacy of Simone's own self-identity. It is not Al Trautwig's place to say whether or not Ron and Nellie are Simone's parents."
Adoptive families are no less real than any other. But black families, in particular, are subject to scrutiny in ways that white families aren’t, making Trautwig’s words sting quite a bit.
Simone Biles’s adoption story is an exception to the rule
According to NBC News, Biles said that when she was a kid, she never thought her adoption was really that different: "As a kid, since I didn’t know much, I honestly thought, like, everyone was adopted, until I spoke up, and they’re like, ‘You’re adopted?’ And I’m like ‘aren’t you?’ And so to me it was just normal and it was all I knew, so people make a story about it but I think it’s normal."
But it turns out that Biles’s situation wasn’t typical. Indeed, when her parents adopted her and her siblings, they saved them from being stuck in a foster system where black kids are overrepresented and far less likely to find their way out.
Black children make up 15 percent of children under 18 in the US, yet made up 24 percent of children in foster case under the age of 18 last year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
Additionally a 2013 report by DHHS showed black children were more than twice as likely as white children to find themselves in foster care: 9.6 children per 1,000 compared to 4.2 per 1,000, respectively. Black children also have longer wait times in foster care: 29 months compared to the 22.4 month wait in general, and almost a year longer than white children (18.3 months).
This data is further compounded by black babies "costing less" than other adoptees. For NPR’s conversational 2013 series, The Race Card Project, Caryn Lantz, a white woman from Minnesota, discussed her story of transracial adoption, revealing that she couldn’t afford a white baby based on the costs involved. The approximate costs (not including legal fees) were $35,000 for a white baby, $18,000 for a black baby, and $24,000 to $26,000 for a biracial baby.
But neither statistics nor adoption fees that treat children like commodities adequately address how state adoption interventions acutely target black families.
A 2011 report by DHHS on racial disproportionality noted that, after controlling for poverty and other risk factors, parents of one race were no more likely to mistreat their children than peers of another race. Nonetheless, reports on black children were more likely to be screened for investigation than white children. And even when reports of neglect are substantiated, white families are more likely to stay intact while children of color are placed in out-of-home care.
In her book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2001), University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts noted that foster care interventions are inextricably linked to ideas about the cultural failings of black families:
Foster care is the main "service" that state agencies provide to Black children brought to their attention. Government authorities appear to believe that maltreatment of Black children results from pathologies intrinsic to their homes and that helping them requires dislocating them from their families. Child welfare for Black children usually means shattering the bonds with their parents.
As a result, Roberts advocates for a shift toward restorative justice that addresses systemic issues like poverty that put black families and black children at risk, rather than the today’s punitive measures that are racially biased.
The Biles family’s story is unique — nearly as exceptional as her incomparable tumbling prowess. While many black families are disproportionately policed — and therefore more likely to be separated, even when facing the same problems as white families — the Bileses have stayed intact, defying conventions just as Biles has done on the mat.