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Mr. Mayor: Alex Johnson II breaks a barrier in Albany politics
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Mr. Mayor: Alex Johnson II breaks a barrier in Albany politics

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Alex Johnson is the first to ask that people remember he’s the second.

It’s not unusual for Albany City Council meetings to begin with the city clerk being asked to repeat the councilor’s full name: Alex Johnson II.

But that won’t be the case come the new year because on Tuesday, surrounded by his family and close friends at an Albany restaurant, Johnson learned that he had secured enough votes to win his campaign for the mayor’s seat.

His victory over Sharon Konopa, who has held the seat for 12 years after becoming the first female mayor in the city’s history, signaled yet another step in the march towards progress. But it also triggered alarm bells for traditionally tokenized communities.

Alex Johnson is Black, and now he is also the mayor.

“None of my campaign literature ever mentioned my race,” he said on Friday, several days removed from the election but still only about halfway out from under the avalanche of congratulatory text messages and phone calls that came flooding in.

“We went from Africans to slaves to colored to negro and now Black,” he said. “All these labels over time, and it’s going to take time for those labels to die.”

Johnson doesn’t want to be the first Black mayor of Albany. He just wants to be the mayor. But in a city that has seen 53 mayors before him — all white — a city that elected its first woman inside the last 15 years and that is currently in the midst of a reckoning when it comes to what it believes diversity means, his election does carry significance. But where does that significance sit on the line between celebration and tokenism?

The reality

“This is funny,” Johnson said, his chuckle making good on the promise as he sits in his home office after one of his famously long days.

The owner of an insurance business, Johnson wrapped up a campaign and kicked off early enrollment for health care plans all in the same few weeks. While he often finds himself walking the children of his clients — many of them older residents — through the paperwork associated with final days, COVID-19 has made that difficult task more frequent.

Johnson feels it. His voice will catch in his throat when he talks about the number of clients he’s lost in 2020, the experience making those long days longer and seeing him squeeze in an interview after business hours.

It’s an interview he gives graciously, but he doesn’t hesitate to point out the complexity of the issue at hand — or the simplicity.

“It’s funny,” he repeats, going on to tell the story sparked by a comedian he had seen. “I go into Lowe’s and the young lady there scanned my skin color and they made a custom paint called Alexander. That’s me, and it’s not black. The programming, it runs deep.”

In his neighborhood, Johnson elaborated, people often walk through the park and down his street as he readies for work in the morning.

“I’ll be standing outside in a tie, a person will be walking down my side of the street, they look up and see me and they’ll cross the street,” he said. “That happened to me on Monday.”

And it’s happened before, throughout his life and throughout Albany.

As mayor, though, Johnson doesn’t want to focus on his race, while fully acknowledging that it’s not something he can hide, nor is he ashamed of it. It just is.

“I’m an American man of African descent,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be about me being the first Black anything because my goal is I won’t be the last.”

Politics

Christopher Stout, an associate professor in political science at Oregon State University, recently wrote a book about identity politics titled “The Case for Identity Politics: Polarization, Demographic Change, and Racial Appeals.”

Identity politics — the idea that broader political coalitions have given way to smaller sociopolitical alliances forged in race, gender, sexual orientation and religion — are not unique to people of color, women and other marginalized groups.

“Donald Trump played identity politics when he was focusing on white voters and rural voters,” Stout said. “That was successful for his campaign. His not denouncing the white supremacists in Charlottesville, his unwillingness to denounce white supremacists during the debate, all of that sends signals to voters who care a lot about their white identity.”

Some identities weigh more than others in 2020, he said.

“There’s a lot of identities; it’s just that some are more salient than others, and in the current climate of American politics, race, I think, is one of the more salient,” Stout said.

It’s why Johnson’s election to the position of Albany mayor rings a bit louder for him as the first Black person to carry the title.

But when he filed his campaign paperwork, Johnson put “American” in the line asking for the candidate’s race.

“I pay taxes, I employ people, I served my country, I’m an elected official,” he said. “What makes anyone else more American than me?”

It’s a place Johnson would like to get to — where accomplishments matter first and race matters not at all in that context. And that feeling is not uncommon in marginalized communities finally gaining some access to the same opportunities they were previously barred from pursuing.

“Even if Alex doesn’t put down ‘Black’ on the form, they see him as Black,” Stout said. “His race doesn’t disappear if he doesn’t declare it.”

Candidates of color, though, Stout said, often don’t have the same privilege in speaking to race issues as their white counterparts.

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“Conventional wisdom is that if you’re going to win white voters, you can’t really talk about race if you’re a Black candidate or candidate of color, that they don’t want to hear that,” he said. “There’s a fear among some that if you’re a Black mayor, you’re only going to care about the Black community. That usually goes away (over time). Once you have experiences with Black elected officials, people see that’s not how they govern.”

Education

The first time Johnson met Greater Albany Public Schools Superintendent Melissa Goff, it was during a City Council work session where she asked him what he would like to see in the school system.

“I told Dr. Goff, teach history. Just teach real history,” he said. “These kids are brilliant. If we give them real history and how this country developed, they would say, ‘I don’t want that for my children, I don’t want to pass that on.’”

GAPS has been in a transition period the last few years, looking at education through an equity lens. Its newest textbooks — a change mandated by the state every few years — recognize the Trail of Tears and Jim Crow laws but still refer to slavery in generalizations that soften the image of slave owners and impart a sense of free will to enslaved people.

In a textbook chronicling American History from 1877 to the present, statements like “Some plantation owners mistreated their slaves” and “In the Chesapeake Bay area, most field hands worked 12-14 hours a day and had little free time to attend to family needs” are included.

“We know in our community, as in communities across the state, civic leadership positions fail to yet represent the diversity of the communities they serve,” Goff said. “I believe the significance when a ‘first’ leader of color is elected, it is a reflection of the community seeing fully the candidate and not denying them the position because of their race.”

Albany’s first Black mayor, Goff said, provides the opportunity for educators in the community to have meaningful conversations with students.

“In Alex’s case, clearly Albany sees him for all of what he brings to the position,” she said. “For our educators, this means they are able to point to the mayoral and city councilor positions in Albany, both of which Alex has occupied, as being accessible to people of color.”

LJ Carmichael is a senior at West Albany High School and student representative on the district's school board. 

"For me, as a student, it's awesome to see a person of color in that position," he said, noting that he is multi-racial. "It shows students of color that your skin color doesn't define what you can do."

Carmichael also said that Johnson's election signified equal opportunity.

"Technically, it was always possible but now, his election is a boost of confidence that we can actually do it," he said. "It's huge to celebrate but also there is that line where we can celebrate having the first Black mayor but we want to appreciate him for what he does and not what he looks like." 

There are studies, Stout said, that show engagement from youth in marginalized groups in terms of government and civics increases when elected officials represent diversity.

Johnson has seen it firsthand in the messages he receives from young people. While he has had people cross the parking lot at the local grocery store when they see him, he’s also met young people there who recognize his leadership and see themselves represented.

On the day he cast his ballot, he was stopped.

“A young man in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag on the window pulls up, rap song playing. He leans out the window and says, ‘I just voted for you,’” Johnson said. “He has no concept of what that flag means to a 55-year-old man. You’ll never see a Nazi flag fly anywhere over Germany. The education system has failed us in that it has not taught real history.”

To bridge the gap in representation, diversity and confidence, Johnson said, lies help.

“You know how many lies I told my kids when they were growing up?” Johnson asked. “I told my son when he was in seventh or eighth grade, a straight-A student, I said, ‘You can be the president when you grow up.’ And until President Obama was elected, I was lying. When he was elected, those lies I told him became a truth for him. People don’t understand the change in aspirational goals for kids when they see someone in a leadership position in this country that looks like them and it’s attainable now.”

Expectations

Johnson likes wearing ties. He also knows wearing one helps shape the way he’s treated.

“I know that some people have been trained to believe Black men are dangerous, and so when they see me in a nice jacket and tie, I’m less threatening than someone in a hoodie and polo shirt,” he said.

So he wears a tie. But he also answers every email, takes every call, returns every message and makes frequent coffee meetings with those asking for more information. He wants people to know who he is.

The approach earned him the confidence and votes of the people in his ward and now the city as a whole that he’ll begin leading in January.

When he takes his oath of office in 2021, he’ll become the city’s first Black mayor, but he would rather the accomplishment not be tied to his race.

In America, that’s a hard distinction to make for some.

“To be a mayor of a city as large as Albany is not something (just) anyone could do,” Stout said. “I think that having more people in positions of power is beneficial to underrepresented groups, but it also signals threats to others, right? The rise of the tea party is a direct result of Barack Obama’s election and this idea that people of color are gaining power and whites are losing power. I think that’s an important part of all this.

"It’s good that there’s an expansion of representation, but I also think it leads to more racial polarization,” he added. “I think representation is important. I think the downside, of course, then people say, 'Barack Obama is president or Alex Johnson is mayor, discrimination isn’t a problem.' That’s problematic because there are these systematic barriers, so to hold someone up and say there aren’t these barriers anymore, that’s just not reality.”

Johnson wants a reality that disconnects his race from his efforts and where young people understand that they can reach their goals in a society that doesn’t discredit the fact that there’s still work to be done in dismantling institutional roadblocks.

“I don’t want my value, my accomplishments, my achievements being tied to me being a Black man, just a Black man,” he said. “You minimize what I can do.

"Yes, I’m the first Black councilor and mayor, but that’s not what I’m all about it. If I present myself as the representative of Albany, I’m not going to get up and say, 'I’m the first Black mayor.' I’m the mayor of Albany.

"When I walk in the room, they know I’m Black. It creates more division when you throw it in someone’s face; I can’t hide,” he said, adding that the title of first Black mayor, and his acceptance of it, is dependent on the intention of those attempting to label him with it.

“I’m OK with young people doing it because they’re aspiring to that, saying, ‘I can do that.’ But people who point it out to me or attack me for not saying it — it’s about the intention. What do they mean by saying that? I don’t bring it up because I am that first Black person. Why should I bring it up? I’m my own person.”

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