Understanding the Riots
Working along with his colleague, James Barker, Kenneth Clark began interviewing zoot suiters who had taken part in the 1943 riot to try to get a sense of why the rioting had happened. In a paper that they would later publish in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, the two researchers would provide a verty human face for the racial tensions that had sparked the riots and make an attempt at explaining how similar race riots could be prevented in future. In describing their justification for the research project, they raised the following points:
- The riots "vividly illustrate[s] the impact of racial prejudice and social isolation upon the personality of an individual who is a victim of such circumstances".
- Through an understanding of this case, it is possible to observe some implications of the pathology of racial prejudice not only in reference to its effects upon the individual but also in reference to the stability of society as a whole.
- It presents a clear picture of a personality undergoing a process of disintegration.Similar case studies might lead to insights concerning ways to check these patently disintegative processes and stabilize the personality.
- When racial problems and conflicts are seen in the light of their effects upon individual persons rather than in broad, general, detached statistical terms, their psychological significance becomes clearer and the practical implications for an applied social psychology become inescapable.
The study focused on an 18-year old African American man, identified only as "R", who lived alone in a rooming-house in the centre of Harlem. Although he had been planning to complete vocational school, everything changed with his induction notice and his decision to stop school and "have some fun" before entering the military. In commenting on R.'s appearance at the time of his interview, the researchers pointed out that he was fully dressed in the zoot suit style and, without any prompting, began discussing the 1943 Harlem riot and the role that he had played in it. Since the riot had only happened the month before his interview, R. seemed determined to have his account of the riot recorded to avoid any misunderstandings or alterations to his testimony. Clark and Barker made it clear that R.'s statement would become part of a book on the riot that they were writing and that the book would present a fair and impartial account of what had happened. The Clark-Barker paper included R.'s description of his life in the ghetto and how it influenced his actions during the riot and afterward.
“Harlem is on fire”
According to R., “the riot started when a colored man got shot. About half an hour later, the riot was goin’ full blast, and the people was going ‘round stores. “ Widespread looting took place, especially at men’s clothing stores where zoot suits were being stolen to be worn by rioters. R.'s involvement began when someone ran into the Harlem Dump Theatre and shouted that “Harlem is on fire”. R. and his friends responded by "jump[ing] up, half full of juice and runnin’ for the goddamn door. Me leading of course”. He and the other rioters spread all over Harlem with their looting and rioting until the following morning by which time, “half a Harlem is on fire”.
The violence was hardly limited to stores and inanimate objects. Police officers and white shopkeepers were often beaten without mercy although no actual fatalities occurred as a direct result of the riot. While Mayor Fiorello Laguardia tried to restore order by speaking to the rioters directly, he was cut off when an unidentified rioter hit him on the side of his head with a brick. Although he wasn’t seriously injured, the mayor quickly withdrew from the riot scene and left it up to the police to restore order.
If R. had any reservations about admitting to his role in the riot, he showed little indication of it. As he stated in his account, “Whoever is goin' to read this little letter of introduction, let him know it was hell down here. By time you read this I will be fighting for Uncle Sam, the bitches, and I do not like it worth a dam. I'm not a spy or a saboteur, but I don't like goin' over there fightin' for the white man—so be it.”
His closing lines likely say it all:
“So as I close my little letter of introduction, I leave this thought with thee: Yea, so it be I leave this thought with thee Do not attempt to fuck with me. (An expression of manifest defiance even though stated in characteristic humorous vein) Yours truly, ? ? ? ? ? ? ? P.S., B.S."
The Zoot Effect
As Kenneth Clark and James Barker pointed out in their summary, R.'s description of the riot and its aftermath deviated significantly from the news accounts, especially considering his descriptions of police violence and evidence of corruption on their part (such as stealing money from arrested rioters). Clark and Baker then made the following conclusions based on their interview:
- There is a complete lack of manifest guilt feelings in reference [R's] own participation in antisocial acts.
- There is a habitual, seemingly deliberate, disregard of even the simple rules of gramar in his ordinary speech- probably a specific indication of a generalized defiance of the larger society.
- There is an excessive use of profanity in ordinary conversation even in the presence of individuals he obviously respects- indicating the possibility that these words have been used with such frequency by the individual that they either become meaningless or are another symbol of habitual social defiance and cynicism. They become "normal" for his rigidly restricted ideational and behavioral sphere.
- A complete lack of manifest sympathy, sorrow, or other human feelings in observing acts of brutality inflicted upon another or even upon himself. This cannot be ascribed to the objectivity of his report since it is certainly not objective.
- A general tendency to engage in exhibitionistic exaggeration, bordering upon phantasy, in descriptions of events in which he was allegedly involved. The same exhibitionism is shown in his general language and in his dress.
- A definite rejection of social authority, i.e., prestige of public administrators and police.
Clark and Barker also proposed a new term, the "zoot effect" to describe what they were observing. As they added in their summary:
The "zoot effect" in American culture appears to manifest itself when the human personality has been socially isolated, rejected, discriminated against, and chronically humiliated. It is the consequence of the attempts of the individual to stabilize himself and maintain some ego-security in the face of these facts. It is not primarily a racial phenomenon since a given person of any race who is subjected to the determining conditions may manifest this effect in personality structure.
Considering that the "zoot effect" represented an early example of what would come during the 1960s as race riots became far more widespread and violent, the Clark and Barker paper represents a largely ignored attempt on the part of two social psychologists to warn American society at large of the consequences of systemic prejudice. In one final warning that was also quietly ignored, the authors noted that:
"the stability of the individual personality and the stability of the larger society are inextricably interrelated and therefore the socially accepted dehumanization of an individual or group must inevitably manifest itself in societal disturbances"
Learning from the Riots
The three-person McGucken Committee eventually pulled together testimony from the Zoot Suit riots and the various scientific contribtions (including the Clark-Barker study) into a remarkable document, the McGucken report. While the report acknowledged the need to arrest lawbreakers, the committee also laid blame on the media for stirring up the rioters and also called for better cultural and language training for police. Unfortunately, the sensible recommendations of the McGucken report were hardly compatible with the systematic racial and cultural attitudes of the time. More importantly however, the zoot suit riots were a valuable learning experience for those zoot-suiters who went on to become influential activists, including Ralph Ellison, Cesar Chavez, and Malcolm X. It was hardly surprising that former zoot-suiters who participated in the 1943 riots would put the lessons they had learned to good use in the explosive race riots of the 1960s.
As for Kenneth Clark, his early work in studying the zoot suit riots was just part of a rich heritage of research that would eventually make him one of the most influential psychologists of his generation. Although he and his wife Mamie Phipps Clark were most famous for their doll research (cited as a footnote in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling ending school desegregation in 1954), his other achievements remain legendary. Along with the publication of his landmark classic, Prejudice and Your Child, in 1955, he distinguished himself as a social researcher and an advocate for change in society. By the time of his death in 2005 however, Kenneth Clark's pioneering was already largely overshadowed by a national shift away from the principles of equality and justice that Clark expressed throughout his long career.
That many of the important lessons that he and James Barker first laid out in 1943 seem in danger of being forgotten demonstrates the role that social scientists still need to play as future problems unfold.