POLITICS

Is This The Beginning Of The End Of White-Centric Identity Politics In America?

In her new book, "The End of White Politics," Zerlina Maxwell explores how progressives have often centered whiteness -- and why that must end in 2020.
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When political analyst Zerlina Maxwell agreed to be on a panel at Politicon 2018, she didn’t know it would lead her to an “aha” moment that would form the thesis for her book. 

During a discussion on “What’s Next, Liberals?” Maxwell was immediately labeled a corporate shill because she had been the director of progressive media for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. The crowd booed when she said something as simple as “listen to Black women.” The experience — such vicious critiques from a sea of politically engaged, predominantly white, majority male, progressive people — was clarifying for Maxwell. It made her think about the myriad ways that identity plays out in politics, and how much identity has always mattered in U.S. politics. Specifically, white identity.

“We have always been doing white politics,” Maxwell told me over the phone last week, “but we just left off the word ‘white.’” She sees now as the time to be explicit about that reality, to confront what it has always meant to center whiteness on both the right and left of the nation’s politics. 

I spoke with Maxwell about her new book, “The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide,” what the “white resistance” looks like in progressive circles, and why Democrats need to learn how to speak to Black women as we head into the final months of the 2020 presidential campaign.

“The future of the party looks like me,” Maxwell said. “Please learn how to speak to me and people who look like me.”

Your book is titled “The End of White Politics.” How do you define “white politics”?

I think of it this way: We have always been doing white politics, but we just left off the word “white.” The way politicians talk about issues and communities, we tend to center “whiteness” and it needed to be called out. So, what I mean by the end of white politics is an acknowledgment that we’ve been doing white identity politics. And that that’s very limiting, particularly as a progressive. 

Very early in the book, you write, “Identity matters in politics.” Why do you think there has been a reticence to admit that in certain political circles? 

The conversation about identities makes some people uncomfortable. It makes folks have to confront the privileges that they have, and the significant harm [done] to people who are not like them as the result of policies. 

Our country’s founding is based on the idea that white people are superior to other races of people, and subjugating Black and brown communities through legislation and policies and cultural norms. It leads us to the place that we are today, and I think that people are uncomfortable with confronting that history. But I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few days about how the pandemic has, in some ways, been a catalyst to people recognizing that sooner. 

That’s really interesting. Can you expand on how the pandemic has impacted that process?

Based on Pew’s Research, by 2045, America will be majority nonwhite, meaning that white voters will be a minority of the electorate. Now, that doesn’t mean Black people will be a majority, that doesn’t mean brown people will be a majority, but the coalition of these different groups and the fact that Generation Z is much more diverse and progressive than previous generations, sets the stage for a really transformational shift. 

It’s pretty telling that during a global pandemic, the police were still killing unarmed Black people. I think it’s uniquely American that the backdrop of our global pandemic experience is political unrest because of police brutality. The catalyst of so much protest, but also progress, has been a response to police brutality against Black and brown bodies. When I see protests where suburban, white families are together and saying “Black lives matter,” that feels like a seismic shift from just six months ago. I see more white people in, not just allyship, but really being accomplices [in anti-racism] — actually putting their bodies in between police and protesters, really trying to educate themselves and do the work.

So do you think we’re beginning to see some white people really become partners in the dismantling of white politics?

Yes. I think people who really understand intersectional feminism understand that if you center the most marginalized, then everyone benefits. Policy doesn’t affect everybody the same way, and sometimes you have to have more precise ideas and a vision for particular groups who have had a history of legislative discrimination. 

And we’ve just been focusing on white, working-class voters. We just assume the voters who flipped the three states [Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin] to Donald Trump that decided the electoral college are all white, working-class men. And that’s just not the case. We obsess about that group at the expense of the Black people who live in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia — a million of whom did not vote. They stayed home. I think as we look forward, [Democrats] need to figure out [how to address those voters], not how to win back those voters who would vote for Donald Trump, because a person who would vote for Donald Trump is not your [Democratic] voter. 

And so, who are your voters? Your voters are people of color, people who aren’t being spoken directly to. One of the things Stacey Abrams always says is that identity politics is essentially saying, “I see you.” And I think that that’s a really profound, new shift in the way that politicians are talking about policy. Rep. Ayanna Presley [D-Mass.] says, “The people closest to the pain need to be the closest to the power,” which is foundational in terms of how we move forward as a progressive movement. Because we need people who are in positions of power, who are representative of the experiences and the problems that we’re actually trying to solve.

As you touched on a bit earlier, Donald Trump has harnessed white identity politics quite successfully without ever using the term “identity politics.” Can you talk a little bit about how we’ve seen white identity politics come into play over the last four years?

When he was running for office, his very first speech was racist. He came down the escalator and said Mexicans are rapists and criminals. He’s speaking to a particular audience when he says things like that — and it’s not people of color. He ran an entire campaign based on the notion that Barack Obama, the first Black president, and Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominee for president, represent a future that you, white men, do not want. 

That’s why [the Trump administration] puts out photos of all-male meetings, and when they have press conferences, there’s [often] only white men standing up there. All of that is a signal to a certain segment of our society that is very uncomfortable with the changing demographics. Change is scary, so I understand that. But it’s scarier to be impacted by racism, it’s scarier to actually fear you or your family member could be killed by the police and that no one would get in trouble. And so, I understand white men who have been at the top of this thing want that security and they want to be at the top. But, I’m sorry, your time is up. Women and people of color are running for office and, yes, they’re going to take your job, and hopefully do a better job. 

I think it’s fairly easy for white liberals and progressives to look at Trump’s explicitly white-nationalist, white-supremacist rhetoric and distance themselves from it. But what does the “white resistance,” as you term it in the book, look like within the left?

There are two things that come to mind. I talk a lot about Bernie Bros, which I say exist because I’m not going to pretend that the harassment that I have received personally or that other Black and brown people have received personally didn’t happen. It did. I think that there is a segment of Bernie Sanders’ support in 2016 and 2020 that were aggressive and displayed some of the worst traits that we see in Trump supporters. And so, I think, on the left, we have to confront our misogyny and our own racism and our own blindspots.

I start the book out talking about a panel I was on [in 2018 at Politicon] and I think the reaction to me saying, “Listen to Black women,” was “boo.” I was just like, I don’t think booing me is representative of where you want the Democratic Party to go. I am the future. The future of the party looks like me. Please learn how to speak to me and people who look like me. I agree with Bernie Sanders’ policy goals. My question was, how are we going to get there? Black women need to know where we’re going. Harriet Tubman didn’t just say, “We’re running, we’re going.” She had a plan. [Black women], we’re big on plans.

I also talk about Pete Buttigieg in the book. In this current moment, as people assess the women on the shortlist for [Joe Biden’s] vice president, some people will form their mouth to say, “So and so doesn’t have enough experience.” But three months ago before we were in quarantine, you were telling me with a straight face that I should take the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, seriously for president of the United States. One of the moments I talk about in the book was a town hall where Mayor Pete said, “I’ll tell you what my policy goals are later,” and called it “minutiae,” and said, “I’m going to focus on what my values are and allow people to get to know me.” That’s great if you have the privilege to be able to do that. But women do not have that privilege. We can’t show up and tell you what we’re going to do later.

So I think that on our side we have to be serious about dismantling white supremacy. We [all] grew up in a racist society. So you have to shake what you have been taught. I think we’re all working through our biases, but also I think, on the left, we really don’t value the constituencies that make the difference enough. We’re sick of being talked at and told that we’re not really progressive. Or that black people in South Carolina really didn’t know what was good for them, and that’s why they voted for Joe Biden. No, they lived through 1968, they have thought it through probably more than you have.

So what does dismantling white politics require from white people?

You have to think about the party infrastructure; who the party is putting in charge, who is working on campaigns. So getting people into campaigns that look like America ― that’s number one. 

On the question of white voters specifically and white people generally, I think that what they can do is make sure they’re uplifting people who don’t look like them. The simplest thing you can do as a white human being, is when you’re in the presence of three or more people and they’re all white, ask yourself why that is. Maybe it’s your family. But if it’s a work function or a panel or some sort of senior staff meeting, and everyone in the room looks one particular way, or they all went to Yale, then you have work to do. 

I grew up in Millburn, New Jersey. I was the only Black person in my grade until high school. And when I graduated high school, I was one of two students in my grade who were Black. So I’ve been the only Black person in most spaces. Michelle Obama says in the “Becoming” documentary, when you get into the room with the people who make all the decisions, one of the things you realize is that these people are not that smart. They are not smarter than me, they are not smarter than you. I think part of the problem is the people in the room are so used to seeing other people in the room who look just like them. If the electorate is diverse, your staff should reflect that. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong.

You hammer this home in the book — with good reason — that Democrats really need to know how to speak directly to Black women. What steps are required for Democrats to recognize that Black women have long been at the core of the party?

Often Democrats will do this thing where they’ll go to church every Sunday and that’s their Black outreach. But there are lots of Black women not at church. Campaigns need to use more surrogates. Joe Biden can go to a hair salon. But that may not be the space to send Joe Biden to communicate the message. I think everybody is recognizing that in order to amplify a message you have to use voices that people trust and that they’re comfortable with. I think we need to see a lot more of that going forward. 

I think part of the problem with party leadership is there’s just not a good pipeline of young, Black talent in terms of staff. One of the things about Hillary Clinton’s campaign that I was very proud of, [was that] the chief diversity officer, a Black man named Bernard Coleman, hired more Black women than any presidential campaign in history. We had our Black girl magic group chat and our brunches. It was just an incredible [spread] of women at all different levels of the campaign: The person who built the website and coded the backend was a Black woman; the person who created the I’m With Her moniker was a Black woman; one of the senior policy advisers, Maya Harris, was a Black woman. So I felt surrounded by Black girl magic. I think that’s one way the political establishment can work to change things. You want a Black girl magic set in your campaign. 

Something else that you touch on in the book is the mix of misogyny and racism that Black women face, obviously in life, but specifically within the political sphere. How have we seen that misogynoir play out during the 2020 race?

The treatment of Sen. Kamala Harris really bothered me. It was stealth, unless you were a Black woman, in which case it was pretty obvious. One of the things, in terms of misogyny that she faced, is that [some of it came] from Black men. The “Kamala the Cop” narrative was amplified by Russian trolls and bots and Bernie supporters. But also, it was amplified among many Black men who have large followings online.  

The way the Black woman who was running for president was treated and the defense of her treatment was wholly different than when Barack Obama [was running]. We often are uncomfortable with women, and particularly Black women, when they are seeking positions of power. I think it made a lot of white male journalists uncomfortable to see a Black woman running to be president. When [Harris] showed up to the first presidential debate, everybody was like, “Oh my goodness, she just went at Joe Biden, oh my gosh.” Yes, because she was there to win the debate. Because she was trying to become the president. 

I think there’s only so many times you can do that as a Black woman before getting pegged as too aggressive or too hostile. There was just a default skepticism of her as a viable candidate, and then a lack of context provided around why she might have been lagging in fundraising. I just think that it was a little bit more subtle than some of the blatant misogyny directed toward Hilary Clinton, for example, because she was running against Trump and [with Harris] we were in a primary. We’re a little bit more stealth with our biases [on the left], because they’re more implicit.

I just don’t think that any of the women who ran for president were given a fair shake. And what I mean is their mistakes were weighted heavier than the men. If they made a misstep or a perceived misstep, it was weighted way heavier than the men. I think we can all admit that now. I don’t think I’m saying anything profound. But it’s interesting to me that the order with which candidates had to drop out; it was the feminist, the Black woman, the Latino man, the Black man, the white woman, and then you were left with two old white guys.

It’s fascinating to even think about what a different moment we are in now than when so much of the primary played out. We’re obviously in a pandemic, which as you touched on before, and in this recent wave of mass protests and a national dialogue about systemic racism and police brutality. Do you think that that combined with the fact that we had a decent amount of turnover in Congress in 2018 will lead to more concrete change?

I think the answer to that is yes, and the key would be to defeat [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [the Republican up for reelection in Kentucky]. But I do think that every single time we get closer in Texas, or we get closer in Georgia, it demonstrates that Democrats need to invest heavily in these states on the front end. I think that the activism that we’re seeing now, for me what it demonstrates is that people are really hungry for change. Our experiences in the pandemic weren’t equal, but I do think that the experience of having to go into quarantine, unless you’re an essential worker, was basically the great equalizer. It cut off the distractions that were preventing the people from seeing the changes that we needed. I think that, going forward, Mitch McConnell is a major obstacle to all of our progressive wishlist items. So, if even 10% of your daily focus could be on that, that would do a lot.

I also think that people need to think beyond [federal] elections. We’re not just talking about presidential elections, we’re talking about Senate and congressional elections, and all the way down the ballot down to district attorney. Because you want to make sure that the D.A. is going to prosecute the police when they kill somebody. And many district attorneys are elected and they run unopposed. I think people are becoming more aware of that dynamic.

The scariest thing for me at this moment is [the] vote. I think we’re all very eager to get through this election and hope that there’s no cheating or foreign interference. [And then] we’re going to have to grapple with the pandemic. Maybe that’s why Joe Biden is the perfect person to be the president in this moment, because I feel the weight of the collective trauma that our nation is experiencing and yet, we haven’t really taken a moment as a nation to process it or grieve. The scale of this tragedy is so great that I think that that will eventually be required. I’m hopeful we can make electoral change, but I know that there’s going to be more work that’s necessary. We’re going to need some therapists.

Another thing that we’ve seen come up a lot over the last four years is voter suppression; specifically in communities of color. What can people on the ground do to help ensure that everyone who wants to get out and vote is able to cast a ballot?

One thing they can do right now is they can contact their elected officials in Congress. Because there’s funding moving through Congress right now for mail-in voting. That all has to be scaled up. The president and Republicans have demonized mail-in ballot access because the numbers are not on their side. They know that if more people vote, they will lose. That is why Republicans do voter suppression. Because they know the demographics, now and going forward into the future, are not in their favor. I almost quoted “Hunger Games” there, but I resisted the impulse.

It’s really a layup.

Yeah, I know. I was like, I’m not going to do it though because I can’t deliver it right.

We’re in a moment of great national upheaval and transition — and also hope. I feel like there’s been more hope in all this trauma than we’d collectively felt in awhile. Where do we go from here?

All we can do is wake up every day and try to be better. Sometimes it’s overwhelming to think about all of the problems at the same time. We have a responsibility to leave [the world] a little bit better than when we got here. I fundamentally believe that. I don’t know if that’s because I have activists in my family, but my mom always taught me to see everyone and to acknowledge them as valid and important. We can argue about “Medicare for All,” but we [progressives] have to get along and not tear each other down in order to move forward. That’s just completely ineffective and I think counterproductive long-term.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.