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Banfield Redux

The Controversial Urbanologist Is Coming Home to Harvard

By James Cramer

Not many undergraduates around here have heard of Edward C. Banfield. Unless you've taken an urban studies class you probably don't even know his name. And that's just the way Banfield wants it when he returns to Harvard this spring after a three-year hiatus from Cambridge at the University of Pennsylvania.

But it probably won't stay that way very long. Banfield is like the professional athlete that gets dubbed "controversial" early in his career: nobody knows for sure how he earned the tag, but he's been struck with it since. Now all the city-to-city moves he can make won't let him dodge it.

The professor of urban government and Nixon's chief adviser on the problems of the cities is controversial largely because of a book he wrote while at Harvard in 1970, two years before he left for Penn--The Unheavenly City. In it Banfield defines what he sees as the real issues that make up the urban crisis--none of which would be controversial except that he reaches the conclusion that there is no urban crisis at all, and that time can handle most problems that do exist.

Banfield has gone from Harvard's most popular lecturer, packing in as many as 700 into lecture halls for his course on urban problems (with some heckling--"all good-natured," Banfield says) to a notorious figure on the Penn campus and a recipient of the "Racist of the Year Award for 1974," from Bonnie Blustein, a former Harvard student.

In many ways Banfield's return to Harvard is linked to Blustein's harassment of him. Originally, focusing on Richard Herrnstein, professor of Psychology, for his theories that involve research on the genetic basis of intelligence, Blustein says she "caught on to Banfield" in 1972, when Herrnstein took a leave of absence. She says that a couple of radical groups on campus asked her, "Why go after Herrnstein when you've got a real racist on campus? Why not go after Ed Banfield?"

She took that word and has been going at it ever since. She and her friends have disrupted Banfield at the University of Toronto and last year shouted him down at the University of Chicago. As a graduate student at Penn, (she went there after getting kicked out of Harvard for harassing Herrnstein), she continually heckled Banfield as an auditor in his undergraduate courses, climaxing her disruptions with the racist award presentation.

Banfield today dismisses Blustein and her friends as a "bunch of kooks" who could exist anywhere, and alone did not cause him to leave Penn. But apparently he wasn't so unbudged by the college's treatment of Blustein after the award presentation incident--a suspended sentence and probation. The president of Penn, Martin Meyerson, a personal friend of Banfield's, admits that the school's light punishment of Blustein may have played a role in Banfield's departure--something Banfield himself doesn't contradict. Banfield also claims, however, that he is anxious to collaborate again with James Q. Wilson, Shattuck Professor of Government, on an update of their book City Politics. "We have some other irons in the fire," he says.

Banfield flatly denies any of the charges that radicals have plagued him with for more than six years. "I am not a racist," Banfield says. "It is alleged that I have written that blacks are biologically inferior to whites, but that is wholly untrue. If some people call me a racist they will have to re-define the word."

And he is in a certain sense correct. It's misdirected critiscism to call even Unheavenly City a racist book. In the book Banfield chides massive welfare spending programs as false cures of urban ills and proposes an ideology to back up Daniel Patrick Moynihan's theory of "benign neglect" towards racial problems.

To Banfield, the urban problems that do exist are minor ones compared to those in the early days of American cities. Unlike liberal urban theorists, Banfield, an admitted conservative, dismisses any economic, political or racial problems of the cities, and instead focuses on the problem of cultural class--particularly the culture of the "lower class."

The lower class differs from what he calls "normal classes"--that is, the upper, middle and working classes--because its members value self-gratification above future orientation and upward mobility. Banfield believes that as long as this group continues to predominate in the cities, they will always be unheavenly.

Under Banfield's own classification system, those who are in the upper class worry about mankind; the middle class, about making it; the working class, about family; and the lower class only about immediate bodily needs, especially sex, with little interest in the public good. If the lower class does not care about the future, he writes, then it will be immune to the deterrent factors of crime control and will riot and steal simply because the self-interest of the culture dictates such actions. Banfield tells us to scrap plans to build better schools or houses, or allocate more welfare for the lower classes, because lower-class culture can't be changed by wasteful alterations in society or environments, no matter how large-scale. Possibly, one way we can change the effects of lower class culture, Banfield postulates, is to auction off its members' babies to the highest "normal" class bidder.

Where Banfield continually runs into trouble with radicals is in his definition of lower class, which he admits encompasses a large percentage of the nation's black people.

"When he says lower-class he really means blacks," Blustein says of Banfield's definitions. "What he says in essence is that we have racist institutions, and that their racist practices should continue." But Blustein's position is oversimplified: Banfield's disdain does not end with lower class blacks--it pervades to all members of the lower class.

Leaders of radical groups at Harvard right now aren't really sure just what kind of reception Banfield will receive here. Christopher C. Tilly '75 of the New American Movement isn't sure whether Banfield's undergraduate courses (he'll be teaching at the graduate level until the fall of 1976) will be protested with the fervor it attained at Penn, but he says he is "sure there are people interested on campus in working against ideologies that amount to racism."

Bruce Jacobs '77, a spokesman for the DuBois Institute Student Coalition, said he has never even heard of Banfield and Coleman Harrison '75, active in NAM last year, says "I was aware of him as somebody that was said not to be a good guy," but he is not sure about the greeting Banfield will get here.

But Deborah Socolar '75, a senior this year who has taken a year off, remembers Banfield well. "The SDS put out a paper analyzing Unheavenly City point by point" she says, and many people knew of him and his theories. She says now that Banfield could run into problems here. She remembers him as "an objectionable man--a racist."

Banfield recalls his years here slightly differently. He doesn't remember students being rude to him, and says there was no "hostile disagreement." But, he says, "Nobody was ever indifferent to me at Harvard Everything I said was an anathema to some, bitter pills to swallow--but I never checked to see if anybody ever swallowed them."

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