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Father Crusader : Who is David Blankenhorn? And why is he so insistent that missing fathers are responsiblefor most of society's ills-- and that only a return to the traditional dad will do?

REINVENTING DAD: Fatherhood at a Crossroads * One in a series

March 08, 1995|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Crime. Juvenile delinquency. Teen pregnancy. Welfare. The economy. Homelessness. Substance abuse. Divorce. Moral degeneracy. Domestic violence. In David Blankenhorn's view, virtually every social ill in this country can be attributed to the single cause of fatherlessness.

No social pattern is more divisive, more dangerous or more steadfastly denied, he has asserted for close to a decade.

"The trend of fatherlessness is so big now, the dimensions of the crisis have grown so large," said Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values here. "And the consequences for society have grown so apparent that it is very hard to pretend that there is not an elephant in the room.

"But there is an elephant in the room. A huge, big, 10-ton elephant. He is breaking the furniture. He is causing us to be afraid. And we can't ignore him anymore."

For the first time, Blankenhorn said--citing data from his just-published book, "Fatherless America" (Basic Books)--more than half of U.S. children will spend "a significant" part of childhood without a father in the home. Births to unwed mothers are skyrocketing. Thirty percent of all children are born to unmarried women, he reports, and for African American children, the figure is 68%.

But Blankenhorn thinks the problem is even broader. "The crisis we have today is not simply an absence of fathers, but an absence of ideals and ideas for fathers," he said.

This void in values, along with the rise in single parenthood and the "volitional" absence of too many fathers, is culturally unprecedented, said Blankenhorn, his voice bleak. "No society has ever experienced what we are experiencing. We are in uncharted waters."

With his book, his think tank and his powerful arsenal of facts about fatherhood, Blankenhorn has taken the helm as de facto navigator. Far from promising a trouble-free voyage, he has begun by making giant waves. "Fatherless America" has instantly become a catch phrase.

Blankenhorn, board chairman of the National Fatherhood Initiative, is using that group's nationwide tour as a vehicle to promote the ideas in his book. His name seems to be popping up everywhere, most recently on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, where on Feb. 28 he summarized much of his thesis by writing: "Today, fatherlessness is viewed as normal--regrettable, perhaps, but acceptable."

The splash has puzzled some in the field. "Attributing all these pathologies to the fact that fathers aren't there--well, it doesn't seem that simple to me," said University of Oklahoma history professor Robert Griswold, author of "Fatherhood in America: A History" (Basic Books, 1993).

"If the argument is, is a child better off with two parents? I would have to say yes," Griswold said. "But lots of these families are in deep trouble before the father leaves."

James A. Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at New York's Families and Work Institute, characterized "Fatherless America" as "an easily graspable and emotionally powerful" image.

"It's a great book title," Levine said, "but it's a sloppy analysis of what's really going on in America, an analysis that actually limits Blankenhorn's ability to make useful recommendations for the key issue: Given that fathers are important, how can we go about connecting them to their children, supporting their many roles in the family?"

Along with the mandatory component, perhaps, of carping, Blankenhorn's meteoric rise on the fatherhood front has earned him a small measure of mythology. One story traveling in some social-science circles, for example, is that Blankenhorn took on fatherhood as a way to settle old family scores.

In fact, he said with a patient smile, little could be further from the truth. His parents are still married, to each other, and reside in his hometown of Jackson, Miss., where Blankenhorn and his own 5-year-old son, Raymond, recently spent a long, lazy weekend fishing and eating good Southern food. On his wall, Blankenhorn keeps a framed note from his father, who greeted the news that his oldest son had been accepted to Harvard by telling him, "Well, son, I'm sure we can make the necessary sacrifices to send you to that fine Yankee institution. But when you get out, I want no preachin', no teachin' and no social work."

Naturally, Blankenhorn proceeded to do all three. As a community organizer and VISTA volunteer in low-income areas around Boston, Blankenhorn led angry demonstrations. "But the philosophical goal was lacking," he remembered.

*

Blankenhorn, 40, grew up with the civil rights movement all around him. He was a high school freshman when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Jackson schools closed until they could desegregate. Blankenhorn endeavored to heal racial rifts by launching something called the Mississippi Community Service Corps, providing tutorials and "black-white dialogue."

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