MSNBC's Zerlina Maxwell on "The End of White Politics"

Politics isn't about white men in suits anymore, says Maxwell — and Joe Biden needs to pick a Black woman

Published July 19, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

The End of White Politics by Zerlina Maxwell (Photos provided by publicist)
The End of White Politics by Zerlina Maxwell (Photos provided by publicist)

Zerlina Maxwell wants "white politics" to be a thing of the past. Before some people get upset by that, Maxwell doesn't mean that white people won't be elected to high office in the future. As Maxwell explains in her new book, "The End of White Politics," it simply means with our nation's changing demographics, politics will increasingly reflect what America looks like today—not the 1950s.

Maxwell, an MSNBC political analyst and SiriusXM radio host, explained during her recent appearance on "Salon Talks" that some on the right will be triggered by the idea that she's cheering for white politics to end, but that is the reality of where our nation is heading. As she notes, in the 2020 election, only 55 percent of Generation Z voters, while voters of the baby boom generation are nearly 75 percent white. With each year going forward, there will be an increasing share of non-white voters in our electorate.

In our conversation, Maxwell pushed back on the notion that Democrats should be chasing the mythical white working-class voters at the expense of voters of color—rejecting the negative implication of "identity politics" spewed by the right. Rather, she urges Democrats to address the nuanced issues of concern to each community of color by understanding their lived experiences. This doesn't mean ignoring white voters, but Maxwell made it clear that minority communities cannot ignore their own oppression in order to make it more comfortable for white Americans to engage.

Maxwell was a Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign staffer and points out that Trump has made white identity politics his exclusive focus for 2020, from addressing — or inflaming — white grievances to defending the racist status quo on everything from policing to Confederate memorial statues. America is changing, even though Trump and others like him are not. They want America to return to a time where white politics ruled the day without challenge.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Maxwell here, or read a transcript of our chat below to hear more about her take on Joe Biden's 2020 strategy with Black voters and why she thinks picking a Black woman as his running mate could help him win. As usual, this interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The title of your book, "The End of White Politics" is aspirational, as you write in the book. What is white politics, so people understand what you mean by that?


White politics is politics? That's it?

I think what I'm trying to say is that we've been doing identity politics. So post 2016, let's go back a bit. In 2016, there was a lot of focus on systemic racism, on gender because you had Hillary Clinton as the first woman nominee. You also were coming on the heels of the first Black president, Barack Obama. So, there was a lot of people who thought that Trump's win was because identity politics is bad, and somehow it alienated white voters in the Midwest who flipped from Obama to Donald Trump. My thesis is that that's wrong, and that we essentially have been doing identity politics the entire time America has been around.

Donald Trump won on identity politics, but what we left off was the word white. So, when I'm saying the end of white politics, what I'm saying is, the future shows us the demographics are shifting towards a majority country that is not white. Our politics need to reflect that. White politics are essentially politics, right? The way we've been doing it up to this point. What I'm saying is that, let's do away with that and actually do an inclusive form of identity-based politics where everyone's identities and the intersections of those identities are considered as we make policy. That's where I think the disconnect is as we head into the future. That's really because for the most part, we've only had white male leadership.

When white supremacy in any form is challenged in this country, it fights back. It doesn't take a change to its power structure very easily. It even uses violence. How do you expect the conservative white world to respond? Is it worse than what we're seeing with Donald Trump going forward as they get the sense of a demographic threat?

Well, I have two fears. One is more of a present fear, and the other is more of a hypothetical future possibility that I hope doesn't happen. The first is that we need to focus on mail-in and voting access. Everyone needs to make sure that their congressperson is supporting the bill that includes the funding to go to scaling up the mail-in voting infrastructure on the state level so that everybody can do that in November.

The other piece of it that I'm a little bit nervous about, and I don't know if this is going to happen, but certainly when you see the president retweeting things where people are saying, "white power," or you see him retweeting things where white people in St. Louis are pointing guns at protesters, one of the other things that I'm afraid of is a backlash where there's violence as the result of Black and brown people trying to assert their rights.

And so, on the one hand, we have to focus on the fact that Republicans are aware of the data. That's why they're trying to suppress our votes. They know the numbers are not on their side, and so what we need to do is understand the numbers are on our side if everyone's able to access the ballot. The flip side of that is being very vigilant to ensure that that minority of people who hold these views, and really represent what I think is the past, aren't able to inflict harm and commit acts of violence against communities of color because they are the ones that really like their guns.

In every presidential year, going back at least two or three decades, there's been spikes of hate crimes around elections. With Trump in 2016, we saw more. In your book, you really don't like incremental change. You're actually advocating for more transformative change. I'm on board with that, but do you see positive sides in incremental change? I'm talking about AOC winning, or Jamaal Bowman, who will now be the Democratic nominee in an adjoining district, where he defeated Congressman Eliot Engel. There might be one or two other upsets out there, but even in the places where there wasn't a victory, the gap was so small. Is that incremental change positive for you?

What I really think of incremental is when you propose moderate policy positions because you don't want to offend white moderate voters that you mythically believe are the swing voter in elections, right? AOC and Jamaal Bowman actually represent transformative change. It's incredibly important, not just to have inclusion in terms of representation, because I don't think of diversity as a pretty picture. It's nice to see all the diversity in the Democratic Caucus on State of the Union night when they're all in white, and you see the other side is just navy and black suits of white men. And you realize that the Democratic Party represents really what America looks like. You want people in Congress who look like the American population—that's how this works. I mean, that's the only way this is going to work going forward. I think what we've done too often is gone with the leadership that we're used to seeing, aka white men.

When I'm criticizing incremental change, what I'm saying is that you can be bold in your vision for the future and put out proposals that actually talk about big structural changes. And then, when you go in the room to negotiate that bill in Congress, I can trust you and the value set that you have. I'm not opposed to Obamacare just because it wasn't the whole enchilada. I was one of the biggest supporters of Obamacare because, at the time, I did not have health insurance and I wanted to get it. It meant the difference between going to the doctor and not. So incremental change can be very transformational in a person's life, but you still should push for a vision that's bolder.

You mentioned diversity. In your book, you write about representation and the idea of having diverse voices at the table. In fact, you were one of the instrumental people in me getting my show at SiriusXM Radio because there was no Muslim Arab-American voice there. So, I really appreciate it. For you, it's not just talk. You've committed in actions. Now, the flip side is, Donald Trump is so committed to stopping this.

He doesn't have anything else to run on. He can only run on the racism. Because I think one of the epiphanies I've had in quarantine, is that the impact of Donald Trump's presidency, it wasn't felt equally throughout the American populace. He can only run on the racism, right? I mean, he can't show that he has demonstrated what competent leadership looks like in a crisis. He can't even show anymore that he has a successful economy because of the current state of the economy. That was really the only thing he had before. So, now he only has the racism. He is betting on the fact that he can suppress Black and brown votes and get enough of his hardcore base out to the polls in November. That's how he wins.

He'll thread the needle, in his view, and then he's hoping that other countries like they did in 2016 interfere in some way, hopefully to his benefit. I mean, I guess in his calculation, he's hoping it's to his benefit. I think there are more of us, and I think we're showing that each and every election, each and every special election. Every single time we see Democrats winning where they've never won before, where they haven't won in 30 years, it's important to note that that's a seat change.

Additionally, you see turnout up in all of these elections, historic turnout. So, when you look at a race like the Stacey Abrams race in Georgia, we talk about the fact that the race was stolen from her. What we don't talk about is that she tripled Latino turnout. She tripled AAPI turnout. She went to rural communities and spoke to those voters in addition to Black voters. And so, she created the coalition that I'm talking about, which is the new Obama coalition of the future, where you add on these suburban white women who are turned off by the president's rhetoric and his tweets, and certainly probably his conduct during the pandemic, and you have a winning coalition for the future. And so, that only leaves a minority of people. And again, what I'm saying is that white people will be a minority. I'm just going to let that sit.

How do you define white privilege?

I think a really simple way I like to define it for college students when I'm talking about rape culture and male privilege, or white students when I'm talking about white privilege is, it's the thing you don't have to think about, like the things you don't have to think about to keep yourself safe, to keep yourself from being accused of something, to keep yourself from being accosted by a police officer. It's the things you don't have to think about. For example, most white people do not have to talk to their kids about how to engage in interactions with the police for fear that their children will be murdered by the police.

And, this is an important point, no one gets in trouble. I think people forget that when we're talking about police killings and we're talking about the need for systemic changes, it's not just the fact that the police department has a culture where they killed just as many Black people last year when we were not in quarantine as they did this year while we were all in quarantine. A culture like that isn't one that is going particularly well and certainly is in need of reform. But additionally, it's not just the killing itself. It's the lack of accountability. It's the demand that there be equal justice under the law and that promise not being kept every single time a person is killed by the police or vigilante and no one gets in trouble. That's the second piece I think we leave off too often.

When I'm talking about privilege, it's the thing you don't have to think about. If you're a white person, you probably never had to think about the fact that somebody would mistake you for a burglar and shoot you in broad daylight like they did Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. You don't think that when you're walking from the convenience store with a Skittles and an iced tea that some adult named George Zimmerman with a gun will accost you and shoot you dead, and then be acquitted for that crime after they demonized you as a thug, when you were only 17 and your name was Trayvon Martin.

I just think that the way that we think about these issues needs to change, and part of that is recognizing the things you don't have to think about, the things you don't have to think about in terms of your identity that could put you in danger and in the line of harm, particularly by this administration.

I find that when conversations of white privilege come up, white people tend to get very, even some liberal ones. Conservatives respond to it differently. But even liberals will be like, "Where's my privilege? I don't get... My life is hard. I work really hard." Why is it that there are certain white people who view the evening of the playing field, and even equality, as some kind of a threat to them?

One of the things I think some white people don't want to admit is that there are benefits that they have that they didn't earn. We don't live in a meritocracy. If we did, things would look very different. I think that it's hard to admit that the success or the safety and security that you have in your life is not the result of only your hard work and sacrifice; that it could be a part of your identity. It could be a part of the historic challenges and legal obstacles put into place by people who don't look like you. So, for example, how are you going to sit there and say, "Well, Black people aren't working hard enough to be able to have the American dream of homeownership," when you don't know anything about red-lining and the fact that Black people were systemically kept out of certain neighborhoods and blocked out of those same home loans that your grandparents got to live in their first home, and then gave you half of your first down payment so that you could afford a home? Those are the things that I think people don't think about.

The reason why they're defensive is because admitting it is actually admitting that you're getting an advantage. People really want to believe that everything that they have in life is the result of just their hard work and their grit. I think that the more white people, instead of hearing someone call out their privilege and then the white person hearing, "You're calling me a racist," I need them to just pause before responding and think about perhaps, "Is there something that I have a blind spot for? Is there an area where I may not understand a certain experience because I never lived it?"

Too often, all of our media, all of our popular culture, is written and shot and created through the lens of a white man. Even when you're consuming movies and TV, it's important to think about, who are the writers that created this, and what could they be saying about these experiences that I'm seeing on this screen, particularly if there's nobody in the room that created it that has lived that experience? I think when we're talking in this moment about the need for cop dramas and TV reality shows featuring police officers to really rethink all of those things, and we're renaming products because we realize... Well, we didn't realize it. We knew Aunt Jemima was racist. I'm sure that person had the press release sitting in the drawer. But I think when we're changing these smaller things, it's important to always look towards the bigger systemic things, but the small things matter too. Because I think for too long, white people have sort of been the default identity. Remember the debate over Santa Claus being white?


Jesus must be white, even though if you read the Bible... just saying. I think for too often, white people have enjoyed sort of the default identity being the one that matters, the one that's considered seriously, the one that's allowed nuance. And I think that it's time for us to break that mold because other people deserve to be represented, other people's interests deserve to be represented, and if we center the most marginalized, that benefits the white people, too. And I need them to see that.

Let's talk about the 2020 race specifically. It's wasn't a slam of Joe Biden, but in your book you call for him to reckon with support of the crime bill and some of the language he's used in the past. Do you think he's done that yet?

No, not to my satisfaction. I do think he has an opportunity in this moment to really listen to community and grassroots organizers on the ground. I mean, Black Lives Matter has a huge moment right now, and they want to turn that into policy. I'm certain the campaign has been connected with many of those activists and will continue to meet with them so that they can inform their policy proposals as we head into the convention, and then through the debates. They're definitely signaling the right thing, but I do think there's a lot of reckoning that has to happen before November in terms of his support for the 1994 crime bill. Because anybody who has watched "13th" and read "The New Jim Crow," which is pretty much every white American this week, because they got their book list and their TV watch lists. Every single streaming service has their list of Black films to help people get educated.

I feel like this is a moment where even white voters have the education that Black and brown voters, and certainly millennials and Gen Zs, had because of that education around criminal justice and the need for certain systemic reform. I think his electorate is now educated on the issue and the harmful consequences of the crime bill, and I say that as somebody who worked for Hillary Clinton, who, while she did not pass or sign the crime bill, just like to remind everyone of that, had been vocally supportive of the crime bill and was sort of tarred with having said, "super-predator," even though that was in 1996, two years after the crime bill was passed, which is just sort of the current timeline on that. But it was all conflated. And I think even though she hired someone like Maya Harris out of the ACLU and a civil rights activist who is also Kamala Harris's sister, and was the chair of her campaign.

Hillary hired her because of her expertise in criminal justice reform and policy, with an eye on making those reforms. Who is the person in Joe Biden's ear that is ensuring that he's saying the right things on these issues? And it really should be one of these grassroots leaders, or maybe a particular collection of them, so that as we go throughout the campaign, he can appropriately respond. Because, the police are probably going to brutalize somebody else next week. That was one of the things that happened on the 2016 campaign is that it wasn't just Alton Sterling or Philando Castile. It just kept happening. And so, it's important for Joe Biden to always be checking in with these grassroots leaders and movement leaders so that he can continually say the right things and reckon with the past, because that is the only way we can move forward.

The demographic group that's been the most supportive of Democrats has been black women. It's something you alerted me to years ago, and then I did research. I didn't know that. In your book, you talk about it. And since then, I've talked about it on my show numerous times. Are Black women also the most taken for granted by the Democratic Party

Black women are the most taken for granted by society writ large, okay? Unfortunately, Black women often are the canary in the coal mine. I mean, you know me, right? You know that I have been, since day one of the Trump administration, basically being like, "We are all going to die pretty soon, any second. I hope everybody's doing the fun things that they've always wanted to do because at any moment, it could be..." I mean, we've just been in danger for this long. And I think living in a Black woman's body... And it's not the only identity where you're so vulnerable in this white supremacist society that you have almost like an innate feeling of danger and something sort of being an existential threat.

I think that Black women not only are loyal voters, but we understand that voting is a matter of survival. Literally, our survival depends upon our participation in a system that puts us at the bottom, often. Not the bottom, but amongst other groups that are at the bottom, depending upon the intersections of those identities. Because certainly, I am more privileged than many. But I think we are loyal voters. We're finally stepping up into positions of leadership. I love... I mean, I can't say enough about Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Congresswoman Lauren Underwood of Illinois, who represents a very moderate district. She's the first... youngest black woman ever elected to Congress. Those are the leaders of the future. As I like to say, the future of the Democratic Party looks like The Squad, and the people who win elections look like me.

Whatever we're trying to build towards the future, we have to keep that in mind, that we're the base, and that working-class voter in the Midwest, that's 77,000 votes. I mean, forget about that. There were a million Black people who stayed home. And so, those people, one, need to be spoken to, need to be invested in, need to be communicated directly to, and we need to be not taken for granted going forward, because once you're in power, you better have the round table just like you did during the campaign when you're in the White House.

With the debate over Joe Biden's VP pick, there are polls that show Black voters are split: some for Kamala Harris, some for Stacey Abrams, some for Elizabeth Warren. In your view, is it significant to pick someone of color, or is it objectively, politically, whoever helps them win, that's all that matters?

Look, I want him to win, of course. But I do think that picking a Black woman would help him win. So, one of the things that Jess McIntosh, my Signal Boost co-host, says is that when we had historic turnout, we had history-making candidates on the ticket. It's not that Hillary Clinton wasn't history-making. People forget that she still got more votes. We forget that because she lost the Electoral College. So, when you want to make history, you better put people on the ticket who are making history and then can garner enthusiasm in the specific groups that you want to turn out. So, it would be very great not just to pick a black woman because it would make for a history-making candidacy that could generate that enthusiasm. But Joe Biden needs a black woman to be in that senior circle on the campaign as they go throughout the rest of these five months so that he can make sure that he's staying held accountable and staying grounded in terms of how he talks about all these issues. If you have a black woman at your side, she's going to tell you the truth.


They're not going to sugarcoat it. They're going to be direct. I mean, one of my mottos in life, honestly, is to be clear, calm, and direct. I rarely ever meet a Black woman who is not direct. It's just a function of sort of how you have to move throughout the world in certain circumstances. And so, I think somebody who gets the level of being picked as vice president will not be shy in expressing her opinion to Joe Biden if he says or does something not great, but she'll do so with that moral compass and that moral center that I think Black women, and particularly Black women leaders, always take with them as they go into public service. I think he needs a Black woman to win. It's not just nice to have because we need diversity.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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