The Ms. Q&A: Zerlina Maxwell on the Biden-Harris Administration, the Capitol Riots and White Supremacy

In 2020, Zerlina Maxwell wrote a book, started a news show on Peacock and continued to co-host her SiriusXM morning show Signal Boost. But don’t call her a superwoman.

The Ms. Q&A: Zerlina Maxwell Discusses the Biden-Harris Administration, the Capitol Riots and White Supremacy
“I’m not some machine superwoman,” Zerlina Maxwell told Ms. “Sometimes when you see somebody that is very successful you think that they don’t get tired, that the pandemic is not hard because they’re still doing amazing things.” (Maro Hagopian / SiriusXM and ©2020 SirusXM)

Despite the pandemic, 2020 was a busy year for Zerlina Maxwell. She wrote a book, The End of White Politics: How to Heal our Liberal Divide, started an evening news show that streams on Peacock and continued to co-host her SiriusXM morning show, Signal Boost with Zerlina and Jess.

Ms. reporter Lisa Rabasca Roepe spoke with Maxwell just two days after the Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first woman, first Black and first Asian vice president of the United States, and nine days after the Trump-inspired Capitol riots.

In addition to politics, Maxwell discussed how she and her Signal Boost co-host Jess McIntosh became friends, and why waving your hands at an automatic faucet might not turn the water on if you’re Black.

Lisa Rabasca Roepe: In a recent interview with Ms. last summer, you said that you didn’t have a preference about who Biden would pick as his VP but you said that picking someone “who has lived in a Black woman’s body” would be a valuable asset to Joe Biden.

What was your reaction to watching Kamala Harris be sworn in as vice president, and how do you think she’ll be able to help President Joe Biden navigate our current world?

Zerlina Maxwell: I definitely was happy that he selected Kamala Harris. I previously interviewed Kamala a few times during her own presidential run in the primary and so many things that stood out to me in terms of the way that she presented herself, the way that she framed her messaging, just even her demeanor. When he selected Kamala it was definitely an emotional moment because I worked for Hillary Clinton and [and we were] trying so hard to elect the first woman [president].

I think that [Kamala’s] background and her experience puts her in a unique position to be able to help [Biden] on specific policies that he’s going to have to tackle right away in terms of racial justice and criminal justice reform. She can be both a messaging and legislative partner in the sense that you don’t have to convince her that gender may be a factor in terms of equal pay or that race may be a factor in educational opportunities or employment. You don’t have to convince her that these systemic barriers exist. She has lived it.

Roepe: What was your reaction to Biden’s inaugural speech, particularly the fact that he did call out domestic terrorism and white supremacy?

Maxwell: I never heard a president say white supremacy in the context of something that needs to be defeated in the inaugural address. Joe Biden said we need to defeat white supremacy and domestic terrorism, and that these are threats that need to be tackled immediately. I think it’s important to note the response to that line in particular. A lot of people were really upset by it because they thought maybe he was talking about them personally, but I don’t understand how they could think that, when he was simply saying we must defeat white supremacy and domestic terrorism. It is a threat to our national security, and it wasn’t just a threat on January 6, it always has been.

Roepe: If you were to give the Biden-Harris administration some advice for the first 100 days, what would you tell them?

Maxwell: I think bipartisanship is a good goal, it’s admirable, but if you can get food assistance to the American people or you can pass the stimulus because you’ve gotten rid of the filibuster and you are now able to really legislate, and the minority does not have the power to block every single thing that you would even think to do, then I think that’s better than simply keeping things the way that they are because of tradition or some sort of nostalgia for the Senate rules.

Maybe Joe Biden, the institutionalist, may not want to go big and bold right away. I hope that he understands that this moment requires him to do that. If I were to give them advice, [I’d say] do not act based on the response or criticism of the Republicans because the Republicans are always going to come up with something. Don’t moderate your vision to try to persuade people who probably aren’t going to vote for it anyway, and they’re definitely going to criticize it, so you might as well go big and bold instead of trying to play to a center that really I don’t think exists any longer.

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Roepe: What do you think the American public doesn’t understand about the recent riots at the Capitol?

Maxwell: I think that people were shocked, but I was not surprised. Certainly the events were shocking and tragic, but they were the least surprising events in any recent American history. Every single expert on domestic terrorism warned that this kind of event was possible and likely to happen.

I remember on Election Day being afraid that it was going to happen at polling locations, or people would start harassing Black voters at polling sites. Even in my book, I talk about the summer where synagogues and Walmarts were shot up by white supremacists. It’s not as if we didn’t know it was possible that the white supremacists would become violent because they had previously already been violent and there’s a long history of that.

We need to fully understand the organizational forces that are creating the conditions for these events to happen. What happened on January 6 was not a surprise because it was on the internet and because people were organizing it and people spent money on the buses that got people to the Capitol, and I think there was a lot more in terms of planning in the sense that it was a specific conspiracy, although the FBI is looking into all of that.

We did not take seriously enough the threat of QAnon or the threat of these militia groups. We want to think that these people are not our neighbors and the people in our church pews with us or at the baseball game with our kids. The more that we learn about the people who went to the riot and who believe in these crazy conspiracy theories, the more you’re finding that people are caught up in a way that I think we don’t yet understand through social media and they’re radicalized in a particular way. I think that we perhaps need to stop othering them because that makes it seem like they’re not part of our community, that they’re not the people that you interact with every day, that they’re not your family members, and I think that sort of absolves us from some responsibility to try to talk to them, to try to convince them to understand and listen to the facts.

I think a lot of people after the 2016 elections stopped talking to their Trump-supporting family members and I’m not saying that if your family member is abusive that you should be forced to, but I think a lot of people were like, oh, I just can’t, I don’t want to deal with it, but you know, it’s not black and brown Americans who are going to fix the problem of racism and white supremacy in this country. We need to communicate in a much more effective way with people before they get radicalized by misinformation.


Roepe: You currently broadcast two daily shows, Zerlina, streaming on Peacock, and you co-host Signal Boost on SiriusXM with Jess MacIntosh. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how these shows differ, if they complement each other in some way, and how difficult it is to keep up with two daily shows on two different mediums.

Maxwell: The hardest thing about two shows is that one is in the morning and one is at night, so the days are very long. But I don’t have to go outside, so every time I find myself being like, ‘man, I’m tired,’ well, it would be worse if I had to commute to all of these jobs which I was doing before the pandemic. I’m grateful to be able to do the things that I love to do and be safe while doing it.

I think the difference between the shows is for ‘Signal Boost’ I go through the headlines with one of my best real-life friends, Jess McIntosh. We were the duo that put out cool emails to celebrities and Instagram influencers and allied organizations that could amplify some of the things the [Hillary Clinton] campaign was doing. So when we did not win we decided to turn the emails into a newsletter, like a feminist newsletter. When I took the job at SiriusXM it was actually to host the show and to run the Progressive channel, which the show is on. It was an opportunity to sort of take the newsletter, which is called ‘Signal Boost’ because we like to signal boost the good work that people are doing within the community—activists like Indivisible and all of the feminists who were doing resistance style work in the beginning of the Trump administration.

We started the radio show as sort of a complement to the newsletter. It’s not scripted, we just talk, and go through the headlines. We do analysis because we both worked on campaigns so we’re like insiders, but we’re also just people. I feel like the show, especially during quarantine, has been a great way to wake up in the morning because you’re just talking to your friend on the phone and you’re talking about the same things you would talk about anyway because we’d still be talking about politics and culture and feminism and gender and our pets and our parents.

‘Zerlina’ is a little bit more how I process the news. ‘Zerlina’ is a space for me to try to unpack [the news], in a way that’s digestible for people. The difference between the two shows is one is a little bit more news informational, trying to explain the news to people and really get them to feel something about what’s happening and to understand who it’s happening to and who it’s impacting. ‘Zerlina’ allows me to really have that empathy front and center, the empathy that drives me every day.

Roepe: How long have you known Jess McIntosh and how did you meet?

Maxwell: We met in 2010. She worked at EMILY’s List and I was a feminist writer. She did communications for EMILY’s List, so we first started as professional friends. We became friends when we were in a bathroom in a hotel, and this sounds like a story that’s going to go really crazy but it’s really actually very cute and funny.

So we were in a hotel bathroom at a conference, and you know how in hotels the faucets at the sink are automatic? The reason they don’t always turn on is because they are light-sensored—which means that when you are Black, if you have skin that is darker, it does not always work correctly. For my whole life, I don’t know. I’m 32 at the point and I’m waving my hands at the thing and I’m very frustrated, and she looks at me and she says, ‘You know it’s racist.’ I was like, what? And she said, ‘It’s light-sensored.’

I thought it was motion. That’s why I’m moving my hands around like this, and she said, ‘No, it’s light-sensored and it’s definitely racist because they did the technology based on white skin,’ and so that’s when we became friends, when she taught me that automatic faucets are racist, and we have been really close friends ever since.

Roepe: Why do you think it’s important to be on both radio and streaming services?

Maxwell: I understand digital, I understand social, I understand how people that are in my generation, Millennials and Gen Z, communicate with each other and also with the world. I came into this through blogging, which a lot of people do, so it was very different from a traditional journalism background.

I worked for Obama and I went to law school, and then I started blogging during law school, and I basically created a career and brand with writing and commentary before I even got my law degree.

I like being on all platforms because it allows me to communicate with different groups. The same people probably aren’t listening at 7 a.m. that are watching on a streaming platform. I think it’s important to speak to as many people as you possibly can. A lot of times people have sometimes outdated points of view on certain topics or wrong opinions about things because they haven’t thought it all the way through, and I pride myself on being the kind of person who wants to take the time to talk it all the way through. That’s where the world changes, when you can do that and you can get people to shift some of their assumptions or some of the things that they were taught that are somewhat outdated.

Roepe: You’ve accomplished a lot in 2020. What advice do you have for others?

Maxwell: I want people to know that I’m not some machine superwoman. Sometimes when you see somebody that is very successful you think that they don’t get tired, that the pandemic is not hard because they’re still doing amazing things. I am incredibly grateful for the fact that this year I had a book and a streaming show that I wasn’t planning on that when I wrote my goals out in the beginning of 2020. I think it’s important, especially for Ms. readers, to understand that this is difficult and your close friends and your family are so incredibly important.

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Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes about women in the workplace and issues related to gender and diversity. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, Business Insider, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Marketplace, Quartz, CQ Researcher and The Week. Follow her on Twitter: @lisarab.