Zerlina Maxwell anticipated this. She couldn’t have foretold the pandemic. And she didn’t know the precise form that this spring's nationwide protests in support of Black lives would take. But the rest of it? She saw it a mile off.
The structural racism that has led to entrenched health disparities, the privilege that blinds white people to America’s lethal inequalities, the police violence, the decades of voter suppression that have made it harder and harder for Black people not just to vote but to be counted and listened to in the public square—“these were issues that were out there,” as she puts it in a recent interview with Glamour. “None of this is new.”
Maxwell is a frequent commentator on MSNBC and the cohost of the SiriusXM radio show Signal Boost, so it is in a sense her job to assess in which direction the political and social winds are blowing. (She was also Hillary Clinton’s director of progressive media in 2016.) But her new book—which she finished weeks before the coronavirus exploded in the United States and months before millions of Americans took to the streets to protest racial injustice—is so current and immediate and gripping that reading it feels like someone let Maxwell peek at summer 2020’s headlines before she sat down to write it.
Titled The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide, the book aims to confront the inherent whiteness at the heart of America’s politics on both sides of the aisle, with special attention paid of course to her own progressive camp.
Here Maxwell talks about her new book, the 2020 race, and the long history of identity politics.
Glamour: The book explains how we got here and the kind of diverse coalition that Democrats need to build. But you also finished the book just as the 2020 primary was wrapping up and Democrats were left with…two older white male candidates. What was it like, working on this book at that moment?
Zerlina Maxwell: We ended up with two old white men! I was like, “Are you kidding me?” We started out with the most diverse field of candidates we’ve ever had, and people patted each other on the back. We were like, “Wow, this is great.” Then we whittled it down. On the show Jess [McIntosh] and I joke about it. Like, first we got rid of Kirsten Gillibrand, the feminist. Then it was a Black woman, a Latino man, a Black man, and then Elizabeth Warren. And then in the end it was [Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden]. It went in that order.
I’m not saying that women candidates, or candidates of color, are perfect. No one will ever say that. But if a candidate who is not a white man makes a mistake, the narrative becomes “What are they hiding?” If that’s how it’s going to be, at the very least, that should be applied to all the candidates.
The stakes are so high right now, and there is so much misinformation online. Your job in politics was often about communication. How should Democrats communicate right now to break through the noise?
I feel like for me, when I go into any media environment, whether it be TV, radio, or whatever, I have three words in my head for every segment: calm, clear, and direct.
I have to be calm because I understand the world I live in, and I don’t want to ever be accused of getting hysterical—no matter how unfair that is.
I have to be clear because, in this moment, I believe that it is life-and-death for me to speak the truth. If Donald Trump is putting brown children in cages, we can’t beat around that bush. That is something that’s happening, and that is unacceptable.
And I have to be direct because we don’t have time to waste. I can’t be worried about offending a Trump supporter, because those people don’t care about me. We have to be direct, and we can’t be afraid to call people out.
People will ask me sometimes, “Do you ever get scared about going on national TV, and calling Donald Trump a racist? And I’m like, “No.” Because I think about my family. I think about my aunt. I think about my grandfather. I think about the fact that, when my aunt was 17, she hid from the Klan the night before the march in Selma. If she could make it through that, I can get on TV and tell the truth.
Democrats are fixated on the election right now, and for good reason. But how much do you think about where we go after the election, if Donald Trump loses? What comes after this moment?
I’ve thought about that since the moment Donald Trump was elected. I mean, I thought about it before he was elected. We need Joe Biden to win this election. But after this election, we need people in power who look like the voters to win elections. When women of color are in power, it’s not just that it looks nice, like, “Oh, good. There’s a woman of color in the photo.” It’s that women of color have lived experience that can inform their policies. I quote Representative Ayanna Pressley in the book a lot, but one thing she said sums up for me what the book is about: “The people closest to the pain need to be the closest to the power.”
I believe in identity-based politics. We have been doing identity politics the whole time. We have been doing white politics, except we just decided to call it “politics.” And it’s only when we talk about people who are not white that we call it “identity politics.” I wrote this book partially to make that really clear. America is growing beyond that, because the demographics are just creating a reality where you have to confront the identities and lived experiences of people who are not white people. And that is good.
Do you feel like Joe Biden needs to pick a woman of color to be his vice president?
Well, I feel good that he’s already been like, “All right, I’m going to pick a woman.” At least we don’t have to have that fight. I’ve been explicit about the fact that I think he should pick a Black woman. I think he should pick a Black woman for the perspective that she will bring to the campaign and, later down the road, the administration. But I’m grateful that he at least sees the light about picking a woman.
Before we wrap up, I want to switch gears for a minute and talk about what the past few weeks have been like for people who work in media. You’re on TV a fair amount and on the radio. You write in the book about addressing a room of people that is mostly white. What has the past month been like for you?
One of the things that has been so frustrating for me is that I came into media from the outside. I went to law school. I worked on campaigns. I started blogging. And that led me into more mainstream media spaces. From the beginning, I’ve been given the side eye. What am I doing here? Where did I come from? I have been asked so many times, “What’s your job, Zerlina?”
And the answer to those people is “I do the same thing you do. I write articles for publication. I write about politics and the news. I write sometimes for Essence, which maybe you’ve never read. But I do the same job that you do.”
This reckoning has resurfaced a lot of memories that I had suppressed from my 20s. When I worked at law firms, I remember being handed mail if I was wearing a blue shirt, like the mailroom folks. I didn’t get the raises that my white male counterpart got for the same work.
I think the reason why the world is messed up in so many ways is because we’ve prioritized one point of view—the cisgendered, basically rich white man. And that comes at the expense of everyone else. For so long, we didn’t question it. We didn’t ask, “Why is it that everyone who is doing primetime broadcasts looks exactly the same?” That’s starting to change.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Mattie Kahn is the culture director at Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour