Corporations Are ‘Plantations,’ Massachusetts House ‘Structurally Racist,’ State Rep-Elect Says

Printed from:

By Katie Lannan

When Nika Elugardo was young, her “little middle school protest” was to leave the Pledge of Allegiance incomplete when reciting it in class, dropping the phrase “justice for all” because she saw too many people experiencing injustice.

As she grew older, she began to move beyond protests and “into structures,” the newly elected state lawmaker from Jamaica Plain recounted at a recent forum. She viewed justice, she said, not as something that would be provided to her but “something that I’m making.”

Elugardo unseated House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez in September’s Democratic primary after a campaign that highlighted the incumbent’s ties to House leadership. She previewed her approach to legislating at a November 17 post-election conference held by Massachusetts Peace Action and other progressive groups.

Elugardo discussed a “shift away from protest mode” toward pursuing structural change and said the message she’s been sharing with members of the incoming freshman class, who have a traditional orientation on their schedules at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in December, involves a need to “reframe our thinking and to use a different model of leadership.”

She said American democracy is in its adolescence, coping with unhealed trauma it must explore to realize justice. That trauma, Elugardo said, “is really embedded in the fact that we’ve never renounced the racial hatred of slavery and enslavement” in ways that go beyond the literal and historical.

She said slavery “represents a broader conception of beholdenness to a master, and the plantations of our history are the corporations of today.”

“So what we need to do in renouncing slavery is to also renounce the conception that there is a master and the rest of the people are either enslaved, or somewhere between, like an overseer, the slave and the master,” Elugardo said. “This is how the House of Representatives works in Massachusetts, O.K.. This is why it’s been acceptable to amass power towards a central figure like the speaker of the House, regardless of the person who’s in it. The infrastructure is structurally racist, structural poverty is supported by it and structural oppression is supported. So you can have wonderful progressives enter into it, and it will produce the same results if you don’t change the structure.”

During her campaign and after her election, Elugardo has not shied away from criticizing the state’s political establishment. She knocked Sanchez over his links to the more moderate House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and in a November 9 interview on the WGBH show Basic Black she said that “the structural racism that we’re talking about dismantling is in” the Democratic Party.

A spokesman for DeLeo declined to respond to Elugardo’s recent comments.

In September, after the primary in which Sanchez and another member of his leadership team, state Representative Byron Rushing (D-South End), lost to progressive newcomers, DeLeo — who this summer became the state’s longest continually serving speaker — brushed off the idea that the defeats were a rebuke of his approach to leadership and described himself as a “consensus builder.”

“I work on compromise. It’s not very uncommon that I would have anywhere from two people to twenty people in my office to try to work consensus out, so I would respectfully say whether it’s myself as speaker or working with the chairs or the members that’s the way I operate,” he said then.

At the November 17 event, Elugardo spoke on a panel that included Michele Brooks, a community outreach coordinator with the Massachusetts Sierra Club, and Carlton Williams, an attorney who teaches at Cornell Law School.

Williams, who spoke immediately after Elugardo, summed up her remarks with, “That was kickass.”

Asked by an audience member “how you’re going to restructure the State House and what we can do to help,” Elugardo said she’d answer from the perspective that the “you” in that question “should be plural, and hopefully not Nika.”

She said many of the 25 incoming House freshmen, and smaller numbers of other recent classes, are “attracted to the State House because it’s a place of possibility.”

“We have to flip the narrative,” she said. “Everyone gets excited when you say, ‘Stand up to the status quo,’ but it’s a little bit harder when you say, ‘Don’t think like the status quo and don’t act like the status quo,’ because what the status quo would do if they were us is figure out a way to bully their way into power and to be more progressive.”

Elugardo said there needs to be a shift in “how we think about leadership,” focusing on mobilizing for justice on Beacon Hill instead of on committee appointments, and on working together. She called for advocates to have “open arms,” welcoming both “rock throwers” and “negotiators,” and said she has already begun working with conservatives, moderates, “fake progressives,” and “true progressives.”

“I am comfortable talking to all of those different kinds of people,” she said. “While we have our dedicated rock-throwers, they need to be a minority as we shift away from protest mode to actually making structural change.”

While U.S. House Democrats are engaged in a wide-open debate over whether California Representative Nancy Pelosi should return to the speaker’s chair in January, the Massachusetts House, when it starts a new session on January 2, is expected to re-elect DeLeo, 68, who started his run in the top post in 2009.

DeLeo is already the longest continuously serving speaker in the state’s history. With Sanchez and Rushing departing, DeLeo has top leadership posts to fill but there’s no public debate about those choices, which over the years have been announced by DeLeo following talks with members of his inner circle.

It’s also unclear who will lead the House Progressive Caucus, a post Rushing shared this session with Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield), who was reelected.

Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), the third woman to hold the top leadership job in that branch, is poised to win election to her first full term in that p