The Politics of Fatherhood

By Stephen Baskerville, Department of Political Science, Howard University

For presentation at the plenary conference on "The Politics of Fatherhood", Howard University, Washington, DC, 23 March 1999.


When we first conceived the idea for a conference on "The Politics of Fatherhood" not everyone was sure precisely what it meant. And perhaps we were not sure ourselves. We knew the fatherhood crisis had been addressed by several disciplines and that political science was not one of them. As a student of political thought, I knew that most major political theorists have had something to say about the place of fatherhood in civil society and the role of father as preparative for that of citizen. We also knew that any social movement inevitably involves politics, both internally among the various strands and externally in connection to the wider society and the public state.

We knew as well that one very politically-charged issue was central to this, as to every problem of American society (if I may be the one to be so direct): race. While the fatherhood crisis has long been felt most acutely in minority communities, it can no longer be dismissed by the majority. As Cornel West and Sylvia Ann Hewlett write, "When it comes to Dads, the African-American experience prefigures the contemporary mainstream experience - and the results are devastating."

Indeed, given the gravity of the fatherhood crisis, perhaps what we are seeing here is an unexpected validation of the prophecy of Frederick Douglass, who said that "the Negro and the nation are to rise or fall, be saved or lost, together."

... with the exception of convicted criminals, no group in our society today has fewer rights than fathers - not unwed fathers, not divorced fathers, fathers. Even accused criminals have the right to due process, to know the charges against them, to a lawyer, and to a trial. A father can be deprived of his children, his home and life savings, and his freedom with none of these constitutional protections.

If this prophecy is indeed still valid, it means that the stakes are high for all of us. It means that in addressing the destruction of fatherhood in the minority community we are simultaneously addressing it for the majority and throughout society.

It may also mean that the experiences of the minority in recent decades are applicable here. Among the lessons of the civil rights movement that might be profitable for those of us to see our task as creating empowerment for fathers is that no people can be empowered by others; by definition the only way to be empowered is to empower oneself. And power means politics.

This has not been the central approach thus far in the fatherhood movement. Yet sooner or later it is one we must confront. If for no other reason than the rather startling fact that, with the exception of convicted criminals, no group in our society today has fewer rights than fathers - not unwed fathers, not divorced fathers, fathers. Even accused criminals have the right to due process, to know the charges against them, to a lawyer, and to a trial. A father can be deprived of his children, his home and life savings, and his freedom with none of these constitutional protections.

It will come as no surprise to some here that the line between fathers and criminals is now becoming thin. This is sometimes owing to what fathers themselves have done. More often it is the result of what our social, political, and legal system has done.

Nowhere is the criminalization of fatherhood more evident than in the politics of the judiciary. It is the courts which, from the days of the civil rights movement, we have looked to as the guardians of the constitutional rights of individuals and minorities. Yet for fathers and families generally, the judiciary has not only failed to protect constitutional rights; it has become their principal violator.

Predictably with unlimited power, the family courts of this country are now out of control. They are not tribunals for redressing injustice; they are more of a racket for plundering fathers and funneling money into the pockets of lawyers. Though their lips are dripping with the words "best interest of the child," they are in fact using our children as weapons and as commodities for the increase of their own power and profit.

The arm of the state that undeniably reaches deepest into the private lives of individuals and families today is the family court. Malcolm X once described a family court as modern "slavery", and more recently West and Hewlett have written that "the entire process seems to bypass most constitutional protections." The very notion of a "family court" - now backed up by a vast army of family police - should alert us to danger. Yet far from scrutinizing these bodies, we give them virtually unchecked power. Shrouded in secrecy and leaving no record of their proceedings, they are accountable to virtually no one. Robert W. Page, Presiding Judge of the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey, writes that "the power of family court judges is almost unlimited."

Predictably with unlimited power, the family courts of this country are now out of control. They are not tribunals for redressing injustice; they are more of a racket for plundering fathers and funneling money into the pockets of lawyers. Though their lips are dripping with the words "best interest of the child," they are in fact using our children as weapons and as commodities for the increase of their own power and profit.

We have in our history seen the consequences of treating an entire class of citizens as if the Bill of Rights did not apply to them. We have tried to live in a "house divided" - in a political system that operates "half slave" and "half free". And we have found, as Lincoln warned, that sooner or later it must be all one or all the other.

As a society we are always in danger of forgetting what we have learned, and I think it is the appropriate role of this University, with its role in the history of civil rights, to remind us. For it is the responsibility of scholars, perhaps more than others, to point out and criticize the abuse of power. "The neutral scholar is an ignoble man," wrote Frederick Douglass. "The future public opinion of the land must redound to the honor of the scholars or cover them with shame."

What we are now seeing, to paraphrase Douglass, is an authoritarian power advancing, "poisoning, corrupting, and perverting the institutions of the country." In fact, what we are witnessing today may be the most massive institutionalized witch hunt in this country's history.

Seldom before have we seen, on such scale, mass incarcerations without trial, without charge, and without counsel - while the media and civil libertarians look the other way.

...what we are witnessing today may be the most massive institutionalized witch hunt in this country's history. Seldom before have we seen, on such scale, mass incarcerations without trial, without charge, and without counsel - while the media and civil libertarians look the other way.

Never before have we seen the spectacle of the highest officials in our land - including the President of the United States, the Attorney General and major cabinet secretaries, and leading members of Congress from both parties - using their office as a platform to publicly vilify private citizens who have been convicted of nothing and who have no opportunity to reply.

Never before have we seen government officials walk so freely into the homes of private citizens who are accused of nothing and help themselves to whatever they want, including their children, their life savings, their private papers and effects, and eventually their persons.

Not since the days of Communist Eastern Europe and Nazi Germany have we seen the regular use of children as informers against their parents.

Never before have we seen the stealing of children systematized to a bureaucratic routine. To find the forced separation of children from their parents on such a scale we must go back before the days of Communism and Nazism. Though both these regimes routinely took children from their parents, they did so on a scale that was miniscule compared to what is now practiced in the United States. Indeed, we must return to the days of American slavery to find a time when state power was used to forcibly break up families on a scale comparable to what is taking place today.

It is not lightly that I invoke the slave system. It is to illustrate our experience that any system of domestic dictatorship - no matter how apparently "private" and apolitical - poses a serious threat to a democratic society. Nowhere is this more poignantly seen than in the impact on our children themselves. Politically, the decisive argument against slavery was not so much its physical cruelty as the corruption it wrought in the minds and souls of what should have been free citizens. It fostered tyranny in the slaveholder, servility in the slave, and moral degradation in both. Such habits of mind were said to be incompatible with the kind of republican virtue required for a free society. The abolitionist Charles Sumner warned of the impact on the development of white children growing up in slave societies. "Their hearts, while yet tender with childhood, are necessarily hardened by this conduct, and their subsequent lives bear enduring testimony to this legalized uncharitableness," he wrote. "Their characters are debased, and they become less fit for the magnanimous duties of a good citizen." Something similar is at work with the children who are now growing up in a society and under a state that forcibly destroys their families and their fathers. No people can remain free who harbor within themselves a system of dictatorship or raise their children according to its principles.

This too is "the politics of fatherhood".

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