The Zoot Suit Riots

Back in September, while reading Toni Morrison’s Home, we had group discussions in Literature, Medicine, and Racism, as we would continue to for the rest of the semester. In one of these group discussions, we were asked to create a list of questions we had about Parts 1 & 2 of Home. Someone in my group asked the question: “Who is the man in the blue suit that keeps appearing?”

The man that my fellow classmate was referring to was the “little man in the pale blue zoot suit” that Frank kept seeing throughout the novel (Morrison, 33). Upon hearing this question, Dr. Beth briefly described what zoot suits were, and then recommended that we research the Zoot Suit Riots and their significance in the era preceding that of Home.

Seeing as how this course is not linear, it is important for us all to loop back and see how, if, and/or when things we may have covered months ago relate to other things within the course or outside of it. So, three months after this group discussion, I am looping back to do my part and explore the Zoot Suit Riots.

According from an article about the riots by History.com, zoot suits were a combination of “baggy trousers with cuffs carefully tapered to prevent tripping; long jackets with heavily padded shoulders and wide lapels; long, glittering watch chains; and hats ranging from porkpies and fedoras to broad-brimmed sombreros” and were frequently worn by young African American and Mexican American men in the era of World War II—about a decade before Home takes place.

Over time, the suits and those who wore them were given a bad and racist reputation by the press and by white Americans across the nation., and many “saw the oversized suits a flagrant and unpatriotic waste of resources”. With the racist attitudes towards those who wore zoot suits, the men who wore them got blamed by the press for the increased gang violence that Los Angeles was facing in 1942.

The riots themselves began in the early summer of 1943. On May 31, there was a clash between members of the military stationed in Los Angeles and the Mexican American community, including those who wore zoot suits. This clash was initiated by the military personnel, and it was during this clash that a U.S. sailor was beaten. Three days later, nearly 50 sailors from the U.S. Naval Reserve Armory walked through the city carrying a variety of makeshift weapons. With these weapons, the sailors attacked anyone they saw wearing a zoot suit, becoming the first day of the riots against the men in zoot suits.

Subsequent days consisted of more and more servicemen, civilians, and off-duty law enforcement officers coming out to participate in the abuse of Mexican Americans and anyone else who wore the suits. Some of these beatings and abuses resulted in the attackers stripping these men of their zoot suits and burning the stolen suits right in front of those they attacked. During these abuses, the police officers (who were on duty and not actively participating in the riots) would be standing right beside the attackers and still would arrest the victims of these crimes. The officers would claim that they arrested the victims for their own safety and protection, but it was clear that was not the case.

During the several days of the riots, it became more evident that these attacks were racially motivated and not just an act of vengeance against those who attacked the sailor at the end of May. Within days, African Americans and Filipino Americans were also being attacked, even those not wearing zoot suits, further proving that these were racist attacks.

The riots didn’t stop with those living in Los Angeles. They started to spread. Both civilians and military personnel from all over Southern California started showing up in LA to participate in the violent and racist chaos in the city.

Despite the attempts made by the Mexican American community of Los Angeles and their pleas to government officials at multiple levels to step in and stop these attacks, there was little to no action taken by these officials. The riots continued until June 8 when, as a result of the riots, all military personnel and zoot suits were both banned from the city of Los Angeles, bringing an end to the riots in LA. Perhaps the most shocking part of the riots is that nobody was killed despite the high number of individuals that were beaten and abused in the streets of the city. However, in the following months, similar racially motivated crimes that targeted zoot suiters occurred in cities including Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit.

If it weren’t for my time spent in Literature, Medicine, and Racism, there is a chance that I would have gone years without ever even hearing of the Zoot Suit Riots. This is something I am really glad I now know about. Seeing how these acts of violence committed against people of color living in LA impacted the different communities there was really devastating and upsetting to me. It is no wonder why Morrison would bring reference to an event of such caliber in Home.

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