Zerlina Maxwell on Her New Book, Identity Politics and the 2020 Election

Zerlina Maxwell on Her New Book, Identity Politics and the 2020 Election
Zerlina Maxwell. (Commonwealth Club)

As soon as political analyst and MSNBC contributor Zerlina Maxwell and I start our conversation, I hear a lovely bird singing loudly from where she sits at her family’s home in Virginia. She’s been sheltering there since early March when her father, a microbiologist, told her to leave her home as COVID-19 was beginning to shut down entire cities. 

Remotely, she’s still able to co-host her daily radio show, “Signal Boost,” on SiriusXM Progress, appear on TV, write—and begin discussing her new book, which released Tuesday, July 7. She also contemplates those who don’t have the safety or security to shelter in place and how she might use this time to benefit herself and others.

The bird sings during our entire 48-minute conversation. To me, it’s a reminder of the beauty surrounding us throughout a time of pandemic, injustice and, hopefully, change. It’s a bright backdrop to our conversation about her book, identity politics and the November elections.

Karla J. Strand: Zerlina, thanks so much for speaking with me today. Your new book is “The End of White Politics: How to Heal our Liberal Divide.” So what is “the end of white politics?”

ZM: I love this first question. The way that I see it is this: we’ve been doing white politics. So what I mean by white politics is essentially white identity-based politics where white people — mostly white men — and their interests, needs and desires are centered in conversation and in policy. And I feel like demographic shifts require a reassessment. So the end of white politics is, as I say in the book, a statement of aspiration that we can re-evaluate and reimagine how we engage in politics, how we implement policy and who we elect to implement that policy based on the fact that our country is going to be a minority of white voters very soon. The end of white politics is basically saying we should open up the spectrum of who we are focused on when we talk about politics and when we engage in it because our demographics require that.

Zerlina Maxwell on Her New Book, Identity Politics and the 2020 Election

KJS: In the book, you talk about misconceptions surrounding millennials and Gen Z voters. You also give examples of why we must center Black women in political conversations—not make them do all the work—but to follow their lead and to listen to them. It’s so important to appeal to millennial, Gen Z and Black voters—so how do we best connect with these voters and get them to turn out in November?

ZM: So a lot of Gen Z voters will be voting for the first time, but one of the things I think we fail to recognize when we talk about young voters as a collective block is that somebody’s turning 18 every year. There is a new group of young voters and young people who we have to engage in a new way because they respond to different messaging and are on different platforms.

So with the Generation Z voters, it’s really obvious to me that they are, for lack of a better term, woke. [laughs] But in all seriousness, they understand that they have a role to play in changing the world around them and they are very strategic and smart in the tools that they utilize to do that. I like the example of the TikTok K-pop fans organizing themselves online to register for fake tickets to the president’s rally. I think that we sometimes write off young voters as being concerned with frivolous things but Generation Z is very engaged. If you grow up with that access to technology and social media, you’re just so far ahead in terms of being able to utilize that attention that we all give to our devices to engage in political conversations. 

Now millennials—I’m an old millennial—they get a bad rap. I think we conflate millennials and we think of the 25-year-old or 24-year-old, but there are Millennials who are 40. So we’re talking about millennials and Generation Z—that’s people who are 40 and under—that’s a lot of people with diverse and diverging interests.

So, on the one hand you can start talking about how to make college more affordable, but on the other hand you better be talking about how to make child care more affordable because the millennials at the upper end of the age spectrum, like myself, have children and mortgages and childcare needs, and they have different policy needs than somebody who is just graduating from college.

So I think as the Democrats look towards November and try to engage both of these different groups, they need to figure out: Who is the best messenger for the message? So yes, part of that is Joe Biden, but whoever they pick as vice president is going to be critical in that.

Who can authentically engage with those voters in a way that doesn’t seem pandering? Joe Biden has to lean into this heavily because you want to utilize every tool at your disposal. You need to go into the spaces where the kids are.

So if they’re on TikTok, you better be on TikTok. … You have a presence. And it has to be ubiquitous in all of the spaces so the campaign is perceived to be trying. Because part of the problem is that they don’t try. They think that they’re trying to engage Black voters by having Democratic politicians show up at a lot of church services, but that’s not enough. You need to engage movement leaders and activists. You also need to engage young elected officials. You need to create a pipeline of young elected officials of color. You need to create a pipeline of young Black and Brown staffers so that you have people in the room that can help you not say stupid things on the campaign trail, but also help you say the right things on the campaign trail. 

KJS: And part of being a digital native I think —I’m not one, but I think—is that the messaging moves so quickly. So the Biden camp or other candidates need to keep at it, every day, over and over. It’s not, “Oh, okay, I’ve got Black voters, check. Now we can move on to someone else.” It’s such a good message. Did you spend the Biden camp a copy of the book? [laughs]

ZM: I did not. [laughing]. I suppose they will read it. You know, when [Biden] had the gaffe a couple of weeks ago with Charlamagne tha God on The Breakfast Club, I went back and reread the chapter on Joe Biden and I felt very good about what I had written.

I wrote a very critical chapter on Joe Biden—but I think the critique that I make is with the purpose of improving his candidacy now so that he can become the president. My point is that some of these weaknesses are potentially fatal to his candidacy with the groups that we were talking about. You want to be able to correct the record because the record’s out there. I feel like this is when the surrogate push needs to be huge. This is when you need those movement leaders and activists out validating and vouching for Joe Biden as a trustworthy partner, leading us as a transitional figure to look to the progressive future that people are in the streets protesting for. He has said he is a transitional figure and so the chapter about him in the book is to hold him to that promise and to say: Here’s how you can be held accountable for your previous record—and you need to fix it.

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KJS: Right. Well, I joke about sending a copy to the Biden camp but I do think one of the strengths of the book is that it’s so readable and accessible, and so grounded in fact and research, that anybody will be able to read this book and gain a lot from it. It’s also very pragmatic, I mean, you’re giving away the Special Sauce; this is how to do it!

ZM: Oh yeah! Within campaigns, [there were a] number of times that I would say something that I thought was super basic or make a point that I thought was the most obvious thing ever and yet it was not [obvious] to everyone else. But that demonstrated to me that I needed to be in that room and there needs to be like five other me’s in that room and an Asian American/South Asian perspective, a Latino perspective.

I think it’s really important for [the Biden campaign] to look outside of the normal political staffing stream. They need to look at college campuses. They need to look at community-led organizations and they need to hire those people on staff. Because they need to be in the room and they need to be empowered to speak up and to push back if it’s a critique from within because that’s how you improve the message that comes out of any campaign.

I think one of the things I give [Hillary Clinton] the most credit for is understanding that in order for her campaign to be good and effective, she needed to hire a lot of Black women. One of the senior advisors on the campaign, Minyon Moore, always said to us that Black women are the moral compass and the heart and you need to have them in the room. And they need to be empowered to speak too and not be scared to ruffle some feathers.

I was definitely not scared of that. [laughs] Because it could be hard but it’s important and Minyon always used to say to us, “You’re in the room and there are a lot of people that can’t be, so you have to speak up on behalf of those people.” I took that with me in there every day. I have love for my family from the campaign and I feel like Black staff is really important and crucial to success.

KJS: You talk a lot in the book about identity politics and it’s such a misunderstood—and I think willfully manipulated—concept, even in progressive politics. Can you talk about how we already engage in identity politics and how that is one key to winning the 2020 election?

ZM: Well, we are always doing identity politics and we just don’t name it. So when we say things like, “Joe Biden needs to appeal to voters in the Midwest,” we mean white [voters]. When we say, “This is how a certain candidate can appeal to suburban women,” we mean white [women]. And my point in the book is that we don’t call it “identity politics,” we just call it “politics.”

Stacey Abrams actually said to me recently something that is a good way to explain it for people: Identity politics is basically saying, “I see you.” And I think that’s so profound and in the book, I basically say we’ve been doing white identity politics the entire time and we didn’t put the “white” and “identity” in front of the word “politics.”

Now that our demographics are shifting, it’s time for us to reckon with the fact that identity politics are the politics of the future and that everybody’s identity is going to be considered. Identity-based politics in our policymaking is actually the most progressive way to go. 

KJS: It reminds me of the argument you make in the book about moderation. I’ve never understood this preoccupation with the type of person Americans think can beat Trump, but we never call it what it actually is. Whether we call it “moderate” or “centrist,” to me it is this equation with white and male and the white identity politics that you’re talking about. 

ZM: I really think it does. And you know, I was in dialogue throughout the primary, anecdotally, with family members and they just were mostly concerned with who white Americans were going to vote for. So: “I support Joe Biden because I don’t think white people will vote for Kamala Harris. I don’t think they would vote for Julian Castro.”

I think it’s a misunderstanding of why Black voters support Joe Biden. I mean, it’s not that they did not like Kamala Harris, it’s not that they did not like Julian Castro. But it was because they’re afraid; they’ve been burned.

Think about it: We held our breath with Barack Obama and Black Americans were like, “Wow, this country really can do that? We can really elect a Black person and make progress this way?” And it almost felt like Hillary was sort of the slap in the face back to reality. I mean the first thought I had when we lost on election night was, “Wait, Zerlina, did you think that we were going to nominate the first woman and she was just going to win on the first try?”

But in hindsight, we obviously need to try a few times because the structural barriers that led us to a place of a Joe Biden candidacy is the same place that dismisses identity politics as something as less valid than what we were doing already, which was identity politics! It’s simply a demand to be seen and considered valid, important and worthy of policy action. As we go forward, it’s really important for folks to embrace the idea that identity matters in politics.

KJS: We are in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, ongoing protests for racial justice as well as COVID; how do we move forward politically from these major worldwide events?

ZM: Well, in the white resistance chapter, which I went back to when George Floyd was murdered, I do talk about how on the left we have some blind spots that we need to work on.

There’s a cultural piece and there’s a political structural piece, the systemic piece.

The cultural piece is confronting our white privilege, everyone needing to acknowledge that privilege is essentially something that you don’t have to think about. I say in the book that if you’re a white person, you do not have to worry that you are going to get killed if you are jogging. That is just not a thought you had before you went for your jog this morning.

And then no one would get in trouble, that’s the other piece. It’s not just that you got murdered—it’s that no one is held accountable for your murder. It’s a two-part equation that equals Black lives not mattering and that’s why the hashtag started by three Black women is validation, but it’s really the bare minimum.

In order to show that they matter, there needs to be accountability for harm caused to those lives. So I think that as we go forward, part of it is the cultural piece and white Americans confronting how we got here because we really have never done that. 

Then the political piece is that we need to elect people who are not white men. Like, a lot more. In the chapter on white resistance, I talked a little bit about Mayor Pete, and it’s not a personal slam on Mayor Pete; I don’t know him. He seems like a nice person. But he’s a young white man [and] we’re about the same age—which is why I was particularly aghast, because if I showed up at the CNN Town Hall talking about, “I’ll tell you what the policy details are later because that’s minutia. I’m just going to let you know what my values are and let you get to know me,” they would laugh me out the room. I wouldn’t even make it to the stage if that was my opening. And that’s based on the fact that I’m a Black woman and he’s a white man. Yes, he’s a gay white man so that adds an additional layer making identity important and it was.

But I do think we have to be honest about the fact that a woman or a person of color couldn’t show up and have been the same way he was— [and we know this] because he was able to fundraise more than Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar, and they are senators. I mean think about that. That is amazing to me and we never just call that what it was, which was that the privilege of his whiteness and his maleness was allowing people to take him seriously because that’s the leadership we’ve always known and seen.

And when it’s a woman or when it’s somebody who’s Black, we’re like, “I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel right,” and we’re so much more critical or we hold them to more difficult standards or we tax their mistakes way more than the white male candidates. 

White Americans need to be in conversation with each other about race. Stop texting me about what you think you should read. You’ve got to do that work on your own and then you actually have to treat Black people better on a daily basis. That’s really what would change the world. Because there’s so many fights that you have to put up with as a Black woman in this world that I think unless you live in the body, you don’t understand it.

And that’s why the representation piece is so important. Because as Ayanna Pressley says: The people closest to the pain need to be the closest to the power because they’re the only ones who will be truly motivated to change things because they’re the only ones that can viscerally understand what it feels like to be discriminated against.

KJS: So speaking of Black women, do you have a VP prediction?

ZM: I don’t have a prediction. I’ve been outspoken about the fact that I think [Biden] should pick a Black woman and I don’t even have a preference. One of the benefits he has is a number of qualified options. Taking a Black woman is important. Someone who’s lived in a Black woman’s body and within this world is going to be a valuable asset to Joe Biden as he tries to navigate this world that we’re in right now and where we’re going to go. So I’ve been outspoken. I don’t have a favorite, I think they’re all excellent.

The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide” is out now.  

You can find Zerlina Maxwell online at https://zerlinamaxwell.com/ and on Instagram and Twitter @zerlinamaxwell.


Karla J. Strand is the gender and women’s studies librarian for the University of Wisconsin. She completed her doctorate in information science via University of Pretoria in South Africa with a background in history and library science, and her research centers on the role of libraries and knowledge in empowering women and girls worldwide. Tweet her @karlajstrand.