Community organizer: Is it a real job?

The GOP convention harped on Barack Obama's experience as a community organizer in Chigago. So what is this job that attracted so much ridicule?

Ask not what you can do for your country, said Errol Louis in the New York Daily News, unless you want Republicans making fun of you. In an ugly display of ignorance last week, speaker after speaker at the GOP convention mocked Barack Obama for having worked for three years as a “community organizer” in Chicago. “What in God’s name is a community organizer?” sneered former New York Gov. George Pataki. Rudy Giuliani was less articulate, managing only, “He worked as a community organizer. What?” Then Sarah Palin brought down the house, explaining that “being a “small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.” With that “nasty zinger,” Palin insulted such community organizers as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, and countless other idealistic souls who have helped the powerless get their needs met and grievances heard.

You’re missing the point, said Mark Hemingway in National Review Online. Republicans weren’t mocking those who choose to “work for the betterment of their communities.” They were mocking, rightly, Obama’s attempt to present three years spent wandering around housing projects as a qualification for the most powerful job on the planet. Is that a cheap shot? Hardly. Obama’s big accomplishments in Chicago, apparently, were to set up an employment office for unemployed steel workers, and to get some asbestos removed from the projects. It was all very noble of him, but when a guy running for president keeps saying he used to be “a community organizer,” he sounds like a teenager padding his résumé for his college application.

Why then, did the GOP ridicule not just Obama but the job itself? said Peter Dreier and John Atlas in The Nation. “Community organizer” is laden with connotations and cultural codes aimed directly at the Republican base. The verb “organize,” for one thing, conjures up workers forming a labor union, now an anathema to the Right. As for “community,” it reminded the nearly all-white Republican delegates what kind of people Obama was working with in Chicago. “Community organizer” also carries echoes of the 1960s, said The Boston Globe in an editorial. By repeatedly attaching it to Obama, the GOP was hoping to conjure unpleasant memories of “the period’s racial politics and penchant for confrontation over results.” It was a cheap shot, and “it makes about as much sense as poking fun at nurses or safety engineers.”

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