Despite the colourful name associated with them, there was nothing amusing about the Zoot Suit Riots that raged across many parts of the United States in 1943. Not only did they represent an important chapter in the battle for civil rights in the United States, but they set the stage for an almost forgotten part of psychology's history as well
Even before the outbreak of World War II, the rising number of Hispanic immigrants entering California from Mexico left many white Californians feeling threatened. Although a Hispanic community had existed in California since before it became a U.S. state, anti-Mexican attitudes, spurred on by the often inflammatory propaganda found in many southern California newspapers, led to numerous racial confrontations. After the forced repatration of more than 12,000 people of Mexican descent to Mexico during the 1930s (despite many of them being American citizens), the remaining members of the Hispanic community became increasingly militant. As the young Hispanics began fighting back against the blatant discrimination they faced, there was growing alarm on the part of the non-Hispanics. Since there were more than three million people of Hispanic descent in the United States at that time, the potential for racial violence was immense. That was especially true in the case of Los Angeles, which had the highest concentration of Mexicans outside of Mexico at that time.
By the beginning of the 1940s, Hispanic youths (already being called Chicanos by the media) had formed their own subculture, complete with unique slang, preferences in music, and distinctive clothing style. While the high-waisted, long-coated, and wide-legged zoot suits that the Hispanic youths preferred to wear was commonly seen in Harlem during the Jazz Age, they had spread to ethnic neighbourhoods throughout the United States by the time World War II broke out. Along with their characteristic zoot suits and pork-pie hats, the Hispanic youths (who preferred to call themselves "Pachucos") were already forming their own gangs for self-defence against racial taunts and anti-Hispanic violence. As for the predominantly-white majority however, outrage over pachuco gangs (again fostered by derogatory newspaper coverage) only became worse with time. Since the zoot-suit culture often meant a way of resisting the blatant racism of that era, many African-American youths became zoot-suiters as well. While not all of them were Hispanic or African-American (there were also white pachuco gangs), that hardly changed the public perception.
After the United States entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, mobilizing thousands of troops to take part in the fighting became a priority for the Roosevelt administration. Still, despite the outrage following the Japanese attack, the U.S. government was faced with a dilemma since not enough Americans were volunteering to fight. To solve the problem, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order on December 5, 1942 ending voluntary enlistments and begin drafting an average of two hundred thousand men a month. Millions of Americans would eventually be drafted to fight while draft dodgers and conscientious objectors were punished with prison or mandatory service.
As for the zoot suiters and pachucos, they made no attempt to hide their contempt for the military and the Draft Board. Many African American and Hispanic youths hotly insisted that the war in Europe had nothing to do with them and that they had no business fighting overseas when they were denied equal rights (U.S. armed forces were still segregated then). When tension was at its peak in June 1943, newspapers in the Los Angeles area ran a media campaign about an incident in which a group of Mexicans attacked some white sailors. The resulting anger led to thousands of enlisted men and civilians rioting through Mexican American neighbourhoods. They targeted zoot-suiters specifically, stripping off their zoot suits and cutting their long hair. Although there were no actual fatalities, more than one hundred people were injured in the rioting. Again, the media coverage was largely one-sided and newspapers often played up the violence of the pachucos and overlooked worse incidents by white rioters. They also praised the "cleansing effect" of the rioting servicemen who they insisted were purging Los Angeles of "hoodlums". The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps high command attempted to halt the riots by banning all U.S. servicemen from the Los Angeles area. They also insisted that their men were acting purely in self-defense despite the clear evidence to the contrary.
As the rioting began dying down in Los Angeles, fresh outbreaks spread across California as well as Texas and Arizona. And the rioting was hardly one-sided. Since African American zoot-suiters were targeted for violence with little sympathy from the media or the police, they began to riot themselves. The race rioting was hardly as widespread as it would be during the 1960s but the violent outbreaks in Detroit, Beamont, San Diego, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago were enough to unnerve a government already fighting World War II. The extent of the rioting was completely unprecedented and police focused primarily on suppressing rioters by any means possible.
By the time the rioting finally subsided, the question of who could be blamed for the violence became a hot issue for the still-at-war U.S. government. Not only was were military and civilian forces being accused of unnecessary violence across the country, but the Mexican government lodged a formal complaint over how Mexican nationals had been treated during the rioting. This led to an interesting political split regarding the cause of the rioting and how further problems could be prevented. Many conservative government leaders preferred not to acknowledge that Hispanic and African-American communities had legitimate grievances. Instead, they were quick to denounce zoot-suiters as dangerous radicals who were a threat to national security and even suggested that foreign agitators were involved.
In the months following the riots, Earl Warren (who was then governor of California) launched the creation of the McGucken Commission to investigate the riots and possible solutions to prevent future violence. As part of the commission's work, the commission members called for formal study of the social conditions that had created the zoot suit culture and contributed to the violence, While applied social psychology was still in its infancy, the prospect of using social psychological research to help solve a major social problem proved a powerful lure for many researchers.
Such as Kenneth Clark....
While the groundbreaking research that he he would do with his wife Mamie Phipps Clark still lay in the future, Kenneth Clark was already a well-established teacher at the City College of New York as well as one of the very few African American researchers doing work with Harlem residents. Not only was he uniquely placed to study the Zoot Suit rioters but he may well have been one of the only social scientists capable of gaining their trust.