Presidential geographer: It wasn’t so white and blue in Manhattan in 1978

Now and then, a scene pops up in a Twitter feed, or wherever it resides, that sounds like something I’d do — like have some friends over to watch a new film or listen to a recording — all to move my steps in some way.

The story could be a dinner party, a barbershop or a vignette of people dancing around a kitchen counter. What might very well have happened in that role among an unexpected bunch of folks before was anybody’s guess.

The new Spike Lee film “BlacKkKlansman” is based on a true story. Ron Stallworth, a black, Colorado Springs police officer working in the 1980s, found himself assigned to work undercover at the Colorado Springs Colorado Loyalists for White Power — a radical chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in suburban Denver.

Stallworth, who worked for the department of Public Safety, developed an email alias, Flip Zimmerman, and began communicating with his targets.

While Stallworth was much less successful than he could have been, the film does leave some people with the feeling that New York City circa 1978 — before crime rates were terrifyingly high and people were sleeping through interplanetary broadcasts and into piles of snow outside Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town or Riverdale — was the place to go to get different kinds of stares and other forms of social outbursts.

Surely many in New York, in fact perhaps a majority, are glad that many in New York have never lived there, and or are too young to have heard or seen New York City in the classic, Humboldt-scene-from-“The Wizard of Oz” sort of way.

And truth be told, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if by 1978 white, and black, people in New York — and the places that served as proxies for the place — were doing exactly what Stallworth was up to. Nor would I be the least bit surprised if some of that was known at that moment to anyone with a cellphone.

That said, as a professional and a historian of New York City’s history, I can tell you that it was a wild experience, and I can also say it is not one that I would repeat.

In addition to the greater personal questions it raised about being in authority in a different community than your own, it also hit upon some larger questions about politics and society. The beauty is that we do not have to go back in time to get them.

And while there is a great deal to not like about the character of Colorado Springs in the movie — and not just because its governments seem to have been more racist and more malevolent than I care to admit in my lifetime — the character of New York, with all its wealth and relative racial diversity, is so much stronger and more resilient than the film suggests.

That is a blessing that remains true and can still be felt and enjoyed across the city today.

* Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He is also a contributing editor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog.

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