The Politics of Fatherhood

by Stephen Baskerville

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.”

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.

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.

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Copyright © 1999 Stephen Baskerville. All rights reserved.

Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University.