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On-screen, on the air, and now, on the page, Zerlina Maxwell is a force. Having held positions on both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, an activist on issues of race, gender and sexual violence, as well as years in the game as a commentator for the likes of CNN, MSNBC, and now as host of her own show, Zerlina, on Peacock, Maxwell is widely regarded as one of the most incisive political minds of her generation.
As we discovered when reading her first book, The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide, Maxwell may also be one of the most prescient, though in our conversation for this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit! she credits attorney and advocate Maya Harris (sister of Kamala and mother of Meena) with planting the seed for her own thesis.
“[She] wrote the seminal paper for the Center for American Progress in , saying women of color are the voting bloc to watch; they are going to change American democracy. And Black women are—they vote in higher rates; you know, they are participating and engaged. And when you invest in messaging and policies and in grassroots organizing directly to those communities, things can really change. I mean, that paper changed sort of how I viewed the future of American politics at the time,” Maxwell recalled. “But I feel like the idea that the American electorate is shifting and the demographics are shifting to a place where white voters will be the minority, we’d never had that before. And so I was like, ‘Well, let’s see what that means. What does that mean for us?’ It’s clear Republicans, they get it. They know; they’re acting like they know that’s what’s coming, in terms of the demographics. And so the book was sort of like, ‘Hey, Democrats, pay attention because I think you’re missing a very big opportunity—and particularly because you say that you stand for all of these things, like let’s live up to the values set.’”
While Maxwell’s book had already gone to press ahead of America’s most recent racial reckoning, the concurrent crisis of the ongoing pandemic only further proved her case. “I didn’t know the pandemic was going to make some of the arguments so obvious, once we were sort of revealing some of the systemic flaws in the system—like day by day, as we lived in the pandemic and the bottom dropped out for so many people. And I think it was an epiphany for a lot of folks. So it’s weird to have been right about a lot, and also have written an entire book right before the pandemic—and then, even after the pandemic, look back at the book and be like, ‘Oh, well, I was actually pretty right’...the same sort of flaws in the system are still there. And they were just there’s more obvious to everyone; I think it revealed a lot.
As for newly elected President Joe Biden, who has borne the brunt of much skepticism from Maxwell (among others), she remains cautiously optimistic as his administration and policies take more substantive shape.
“I just think that the intentionality is a good sign for this administration. And I think it shows a shift away from sort of the white male-centered consulting class, if you will. And that’s good,” she says, adding: “That doesn’t mean that those people still don’t have things to contribute. Obviously, they do...But I think that understanding that there is kind of a generational shift happening in the Democratic Party...the future of the party looks like The Squad—and the people who elect them look like The Squad,” she continued, concluding: “At the end of the day, it’s about keeping the coalition together.”
Hear more from the razor-sharp mind of Zerlina Maxwell in Episode 29 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: Zerlina Maxwell Wants to Heal Our Liberal Divide, available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. A transcript is also available for this week’s episode.