Race relations during World War II and the ensuing attacks on African Americans in the Zoot Suit Riots

The conk haircuts, the wide-brimmed hats adorned with long, flashy feathers, the shoulder pads on the jackets that extended to the knees, the baggy pants that narrowed at the bottom – all of it was a form of expression, a form of protest.  Protest against the discrepancy of fighting for freedom overseas during World War II, while not sharing in the same “white” freedom described in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States and experienced in their own country.  Zoot suiters used their bodies as a form of expression against the norms of the era.  Their consumerist lifestyles upset many and the media quickly demonized African Americans as criminals.  The rumors and negativity that surrounded the zoot suiters calumniated in the Zoot Suit Riots of Los Angeles, California in which servicemen attacked young minorities (whether they were donning the zoot suit or not).  In the media and popular opinion, the victims were made out to be the perpetrators and the sailors were seen as heroes fighting those who were considered to be distracting from the war effort.  While history has often shown the Zoot Suit Riots in a more or less racially binary way, it was actually a very multiethnic experience.  Here in lies the true significance of the zoot.  While many groups were being oppressed, they also came together to express themselves and fight that very oppression.  Zoot suits were a terrific early example of African Americans using their bodies, clothing and language as a form of civil disobedience during a time in which ethnic youth came together to share in a culture all their own.

The war stirred emotions all over the world and complicated cultural and racial boundaries in the United States.  Many African Americans were ready to fight for their country, but experienced racism in that effort as well in everyday life.  “More than 3 million African Americans registered under the Selective Services Act of 1940, and despite a rejection rate of more than twice that for white applicants, approximately 1 million African Americans served during World War II” (Alvarez 17).  Obviously victory abroad was very important to all Americans, but African Americans also strived for victory against segregation and oppression in their own country.  R. J. Smith points out that this period of time was ample to moving civil rights forward.  “World War II stirred the mood of African Americans everywhere.  A new spirit of protest surfaced, one based on a faith that white consciences could be pricked at a time when blacks were fighting to defeat a doctrine of racial superiority overseas yet victimized by one at home.  In Los Angeles, black leaders saw the war as a pivotal moment for advancing civil rights agenda” (Smith x).  Activists believed that the war could work as a spotlight upon the racial injustices occurring “from sea to shining sea.”  Many zoot suiters volunteered for or were drafted in the military, despite often being portrayed as completely conflicting to the war effort.  While some used their military service as a statement about what patriotism meant, others used their style to send a seemingly different message.

The zoot suit itself was a form of civil disobedience.  Zoot suiters believed they were simply expressing themselves and their lifestyles, while onlookers also attached the falsities that they were distracting from the war effort and were participants in juvenile delinquency.  Douglas Henry Daniels mentions in his writing about Mexican American and African American culture in Los Angeles how zoot suiters made a name for themselves due largely in part to the misconceptions that people had about them.  “The public would not have been concerned at all about the zoot suit if the style had not been viewed as a menace to society” (Daniels).  Outsiders did not understand, and most importantly, could not contain, the zoot suiters’ consumerist lifestyles.  While public opinion placed great importance on rationing and doing work that directly benefited the war effort, zoot suiters often times preferred to spend their time – and money – in a more leisurely way.  “Many believed that rationing wartime goods would help win the war and ensure that increased consumption would be among the postwar spoils.  Zoot suiters’ consumer gaze reflected not only their desire for commodities but also their power to objectify goods and uniquely engage the wartime economy – cultural practices most often executed by white males” (Alvarez 96).  While many onlookers saw zoot suiters’ actions as anti-American, in all reality, by working against norms, zoot suiters were in their own way helping their country by engaging the market.  With every dance and movie they attended and with every zoot suit they saved up to purchase, African Americans held a piece of the American economy in their hands.  “Engaged, active consumers of popular culture, they were expressing an identity in the marketplace.  In their hands, style became a kind of protest.  The zoot suit symbolized a generation filling the streets…” (Smith 31).  They became a generation with their own culture.  Their way of living described their way of life.  A life that engaged the economy in ways that minorities had not previously before, and that also protested the typical norms of the time.  With this, their bodies would become a place of worship and also a battleground.

Zoot suits were more than just clothing items used as forms of expression.  They were symbols of struggle.  A struggle to have their presence felt in a country that saw them as juvenile delinquents living in opposition to patriotism.  The bodies of zoot suiters became a place to make a statement, a place to find dignity.   “These young men used their physical bodies to exhibit confidence, security, and dignity – attributes markedly different from popular images of zoot suiters as morally and culturally bankrupt” (Alvarez 95).  Within zoot culture, ethnic youth found a place where they could experience self-assurance and an identity all their own.  They had a place where they could oppose the status quo of the era and distinguish themselves from the typical American by finding their own individuality.  “The bodies of African American and Mexican American youth were also much more than texts to be read.  They were also home to lived, sufferable experiences, making them the terrain for joy, pain, fear, and desire.  The ‘body of politics of dignity,’ albeit often unorganized, unselfconscious, and unarticulated, was one way for zoot suiters to challenge normative behavior and social mores” (Alvarez 80).  Non-white youth came together to create their own unique identities separate from the common ideals of the typical white man during WWII.

While zoot suits were intended to differentiate from the social norms and mores of the everyday American, these very things made their style easily racialized as well.  “Whites were repelled by the zoot suit precisely because of what it represented: rebellion against traditional forms of discrimination and subordination” (Erenberg, Hirsch 294).  This rebellion became (often unwarrantedly) associated with crime and delinquency.  Negative media portrayals and things such as the Ayres Report criminalized zoot suiters and racialized crime.  “Such discourse portrayed nonwhite youth, like wolves or wild cats in need of being caged, as a predatory threat to home-front unity and a dangerous source of crime, violence, and immortality” (Alvarez 47).  From day one, zoot suits had a negative connotation in popular culture, but the impact of increasing fear mongering and rumors created even more unpleasant circumstances for African Americans and other ethnic youth.

As the country turned more and more against zooters (some areas of the country even banned the manufacture of zoot suits claiming that the baggy fashion was a waste of fabric), racial tensions increased and what had once been a form protest and a statement for ethnic youth was literally stripped away.  A culmination in the anger towards zoot suitors was the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles, California.  Service men – often spurred by rumors of African Americans assaulting or raping white women – attacked minorities all over the city.  The attacks were against minorities of all ages, creeds and sexes.  “Rampaging servicemen, at times accompanied by civilians, actively hunted zooters.  When they apprehended them, they beat and ‘unpantsed’ (disrobed) them and destroyed their zoot suits” (Ramirez).  These attacks were symbolic castrations that underscored the salience of masculinity during the riots.  Attackers wanted to take away the identity and dignity the zoot suiters worked so hard to attain.  The hatred spread so far that some attacks were against those not even sporting the style.  The most violent attack was against zoot-suit-less young African American man.  “In what was considered the most serious injury of the riots, Lewis Jackson, a twenty-three-year-old black defense worker, was attacked by a mob of sailors and soldiers on Monday during the riots.  Jackson was stabbed and gouged in the eye with a knife after he was engulfed in the street by a mob of up to two hundred rioters” (Alvarez 177).  Although minorities were the victims of these attacks, the sailors were portrayed as the heroes – protectors of white women and typical American morals and freedom.  “Officers of the law, as well as the public, often cheered the soldiers and sailors and then arrested the victims, while members of the press treated the whole affair as a kind of festivity” (Daniels).  The violence directed towards ethnic youth was underscored in the court of public opinion, even though zoot suiters were criminalized and demonized even more than they had been in the past.  The dignity and identity they worked so hard to create in their zoot suit culture was literally and figuratively stripped away from them.

An important thing to note about the Zoot Suit Riots and everything that led up to them is the complete disregard of the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States.  Everything the founding fathers said they stood for was rejected in the hatred and oppression of minorities during World War II.  African Americans were truly fighting for a more perfect Union in which there could not only be freedom for those abroad, but also for their brothers and sisters in their own country.  The Preamble states, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” (U.S. Cont. Preamble).  Essentially all of those freedoms were not given to African Americans during this time.  There was no justice for those falsely accused of crimes simply because of their skin color or their style of clothing.  There was no justice for the many African Americans attacked during the riots who were made out to be the villains, while the white servicemen got to enjoy their freedom and white privilege.  There was no insurance of domestic tranquility or provisions for the common defense when the very men who were meant to be protecting the country were attacking fellow Americans.  In fact, while zoot suiters were portrayed as being contrary to the war effort, the servicemen involved in the riots proved that they themselves were doing just that, by attacking the rights of young Americans while they should have been working to protect them.  There was no general welfare when African Americans did not have the same rights, and when they did attempt to assert themselves, that dignity was forcefully taken away by the “governmental protectors” themselves.  The blessings of liberty so described were truly those only intended for white males (“ourselves”).  The difference here is the posterity mentioned.  Because of the suffering of the African Americans during World War II and from generation to generation, future generations can and should experience more and more of these proclaimed freedoms – impartiality, protection and prosperity that they deserve and should so be given.

While in the grand scheme of the history of the United States, zoot suiters may only appear as a mere glimmer, its impact should not be underestimated.  Zoot suits were more than just a symbol of the struggle against the established norms.  They were more than just a form of expression in which young African Americans could claim their own dignity.  Zoot suiters also created a common community that brought together oppressed ethnic youth.   “Despite racial, regional, and gender differences among zoot suiters, their struggles for dignity linked them as a class, where class functioned not just as a predefined group of people indentified by similar relations of subordination or exploitation to capital but also as a group based on members’ insubordination to domination” (Alvarez 78).  While servicemen were fighting for the rights of those abroad, at home the hepcats, pachucos and Nisei and Filipino zoot suiters made an army of their own and donned their own uniform to fight for their own freedoms.

History often applies most of its focus on the violent acts of the Zoot Suit Riots, while skimming over the importance of racial and gender relationships.  Instead of creating separate coalitions, ethnic youth often came together in a common sense of oppression.  With this, they not only shared the burden of hatred, but also shared and copied each other’s style and lingo.  Allison Varzally explains that despite often being small in numbers, these minority youth created a space for themselves and showcased the possibilities of multicultural contacts as an alternative version of Americanization.   “Rather than answer poverty and discrimination by adopting the norms of middle-class, White Protestants or the cosmopolitan hopes of their minority peers, these youth chose a defiant acculturation premised upon habitual, transformative ethnic crossings with many minority cultures” (Varzally 79).  Varzally suggests that while in different arenas, and in different ways, non-white groups influence and borrow from each other’s styles to this day (Varzally 75-6).  Zoot suit culture said something about the time, but also said something about the minority youth.  They understood each other’s oppression and thus came together to share in a community that set them apart from the norms of the era.

Zoot suits were a style.  They were a statement.  They were a protest about the unfairness of fighting for freedom overseas while not being granted freedom in the United States.  They were a protest against the model of popular culture.  They were a statement that young African Americans could hold a piece of the American economy in their hands by dressing and living the way they wanted to, be that in a seemingly consumerist or leisurely lifestyle.   “Zoot suiters reflected the reality that many nonwhites were neither fully alienated nor fully assimilated” (Alvarez 151).  The importance of zoot suiters and the impending Zoot Suit Riots in L.A. must not be overlooked in the pages of history.  It was a time when activists such as Malcolm X first saw a moment in which they could express themselves in a hip and risky form of protest.    Most importantly, it was a time when ethnic youth stood up and came together to fight against a common feeling of oppression.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Luis. The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Daniels, Douglas Henry. “Los Angeles Zoot: Race ‘Riot,’ the Pachuco, and Black Music Culture.” The Journal of Negro History 82 (1997): 201+.

Erenberg, Lewis A. and Susan E. Hirsch. The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Ramirez, Catherine Sue. “Domesticating the Pachuca.” The Women in the Zoot Suit. University of Colorado Electronic Reserves. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.

Smith, R.J. The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940’s and the Lost African American Renaissance. New York City: PublicAffairs, 2006.

Varzally, Allison. Making a non-White America: Californians coloring outside ethnic lines, 1925-1955. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

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