Zoot Suit Riots, June 1943
“We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.”
- bell hooks
Seventy-one years ago this month — during the reign of liberal (sic) hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the Land of the Free™ was yet again cynically exploiting the standard good vs. evil rhetoric in the name of furthering its global agenda.
Translation: It was not the safest time for a non-white human to own a zoot suit…
As the Good (sic) War progressed, young Mexican workers entered the U.S. en masse in response to a worker shortage on the Pacific coast. At the same time, some Latino youths began to dress almost exclusively in zoot suits.
A zoot suit has described as such: “A very long jacket, flared at the bottom, with exaggeratedly padded, boxy shoulders, and pegged sleeves. The trousers are pleated at the waistline, cut very wide over the hips, and taper to such narrow bottoms that men with big feet have trouble slipping the pants on.”
While the zoot suit eventually attained widespread popularity in the mainstream, it also became a pejorative synonym for “Mexican” on the West Coast as some Americans took umbrage at what they choose to perceive as able-bodied young men not “helping to win the war.”
To the local white population of Los Angeles, the manufacturing of zoot suits was a glaring example of waste in a time that — they were programmed to believe — demanded sacrifice in the name of defending democracy (sic). This skewed perception inevitably led to racist violence — sparked by angry white soldiers on leave.
“In June 1943, the ‘zoot suit’ riots exploded in Los Angeles,” explains historian Michael C.C. Adams. “For almost a week, off-duty white enlisted personnel roamed the streets, assaulting Hispanics.”
Not just Hispanics.
Blacks were also dragged into the streets by soldiers and civilians, where they were stripped and beaten. The response of the Los Angeles City Council was classic Home of the Brave™ stuff. Rather than address the issues of racism and exploited labor, it became a misdemeanor offense to wear a zoot suit. (insert rimshot here)
“Mongrolization of the white race”
Lest anyone get the impression I’m cherry picking, please keep in mind that the racial climate during the Greatest Generation years was one of institutional intolerance even for those who “served” in battle.
For example, blood plasma collected from black soldiers was separated from that of white soldiers to avoid the “mongrolization of the white race.” This was openly done by the Red Cross with the full approval of the U.S. government. Ironically, the blood bank system was developed by a black physician, Charles Drew, who was initially put in charge of wartime donations but later fired when he spoke out against blood segregation.
Of course, as historian Howard Zinn reminded us, WWII was allegedly being fought to prove that Hitler “was wrong in his ideas of white Nordic supremacy over ‘inferior’ races” yet the United States’ armed forces were (wait for it) segregated by race.
“When troops were jammed onto the Queen Mary in early 1945 to go to combat duty in the European theater,” Zinn added, “the blacks were stowed down in the depths of the ship near the engine room, as far as possible from the fresh air of the deck, in a bizarre reminder of the slave voyages of old.”
The men that devised and carried out the despicable behavior described above (and so much more) are widely considered to be part of this country’s “greatest generation.” By any rational definition, these men are terrorists.
Never forget, comrades: This is what we’re up against.
A few take home messages:
*Racist scapegoating is an enduring American tradition.
*White supremacy is a dangerous reality and continues to be a dangerous reality.
*Harking back to the “good old days” is neither a helpful nor revolutionary choice.
*It’s long overdue for those who benefit from this oppressive and corrupt system to recognize and reject the normalization of their subsequent privilege.
Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on a couple of obscure websites called Facebook and Twitter. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here.