“I guess a small-town mayor is sort like a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities.” That line got a big laugh and cheer from the delegates at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul this week. At the same time it betrayed an attitude of neglect that has characterized this presidential election campaign on both sides of the aisle.
For Gov. Palin’s information, community organizers are people who take on the responsibility of helping people who have no power or voice in this society, not only to get heard, but also to secure rights and opportunities that are denied them because they are poor. This summer I had the opportunity to attend the annual gathering of the National Organizers Alliance, a network of community organizers. These folks were working in a variety fields: immigration reform, voter registration, environmental protection, civil rights, labor, and anti-racism. Like social workers, childcare workers, inner city school teachers, youth workers, and millions of community and church volunteers, community organizers are committed to securing dignity and rights to the people who are often neglected, forgotten, and, even worse, abused by the U.S. economic and political system. As my wife, a social worker who serves people with HIV/AIDS, says: “We work with the folks that the rest of the society would rather not deal with.”
However, in addition to insulting a whole group of dedicated folks whose contributions are already devalued by this society, Gov. Palin’s statement raises a deeper concern about this election; and in this regard Sen. Obama is equally at fault. While there has been a lot of talk about the “middle class” and the “working class” by the candidates, no one has talked seriously about the growing extent of poverty in this nation. The only candidate to focus on the needs of the poor was John Edwards in the Democratic primary race. Other than that the poor have largely been ignored.
In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama talked about the mortgage crisis, rising oil prices, jobs being shipped overseas, lowering taxes and the like – issues that impact the middle class. As a person with a “middle class” income, I resonate with those issues. I have not been able to do all I wanted to do, because costs have gone up. I am fortunate to have a secure mortgage, decent health coverage and a good credit rating, but I wouldn’t mind a little more. But the discomfort I experience is nothing compared to those who were suffering before the mortgage crisis hit, because they either didn’t have a permanent home, or because they struggled to pay the monthly rent. The discomfort I experience is nothing to the family that has no health care, and limited transportation, and whose schools are overcrowded, undersupplied, and physically decrepit. Senator Obama has talked about growing up with a single mom on a limited income, but has not fully addressed the complex burdens faced by the poor in this society today. He knows about it not only from his childhood, but also from his days as a community organizer. He tells the stories of people he knew in Southside Chicago in his memoir Dreams of My Father.
So, Obama knows about poverty, but for political reasons he has chosen not to talk about it; poverty, like racism, is not an issue Americans want to be reminded of. Gov. Palin, and the Republicans take the neglect even further, and ridicule those who make it their business to work side by side with those who are marginalized, dispossessed and abused by our system.
However, let me be clear: the issue is not about charity. Republicans are as generous and concerned about the “downtrodden” as anyone else. The issue is not about charity, but rather about social justice. John Rawls, Harvard philosopher who wrote A Theory of Justice, said that a society is judged on how it responds to the needs of the most vulnerable in that society. Justice is about making sure that people have their basic needs met, and that the doors of opportunity are equally open to all. Justice isn’t about giveaways; rather it’s about creating an economic, educational, and political system that gives every person a voice regardless of their station in life. In short social justice suggests that one’s ideas, rather than one’s access to power thru lobbyists and financial contributions, guide the decisions leaders make. In short, social justice is actually practicing the democracy we profess to have in this society
Almost all political speakers end their speeches with some variant of “God Bless America.” Jesus said that the way one responds to the needs of the poor, naked, imprisoned and weak is equivalent to the way one responds to him, and by extension to God (Matthew 25). If this nation truly wants any sense of God’s blessing, we had better open our eyes and our minds to those through whom God speaks and listens: the poor.