Seventy years ago today, white U.S. Navy sailors swarmed into Los Angeles and attacked young Hispanic men. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s response would provoke an eerily familiar rebuttal. (More)
The Zoot Suit Riots had their roots in the virulent and widely-accepted racism of the time. Japanese-Americans in Los Angeles – and throughout California and the West Coast – had already been moved out in the post-Pearl Harbor internment program. Jim Crow was still the law in the South, so much that German prisoners-of-war were served in restaurants that excluded black soldiers. News headlines and articles of that period dripped with open racism that would get editors and reporters fired today.
Although a higher percentage of Hispanics than whites enlisted in the military, the Los Angeles Almanac notes that this wasn’t the common perception:
At first, serviceman merely derided the young Latino males attired in “zoot suits.” The derision turned to resentment, however, because the young Latino “zoot suiters” were not in military uniform. In fact, many Mexican American men were already in military uniform, disproportionately so for their numbers. Yet this was not what bored, restless young white servicemen saw when rubbing shoulders with strutting, brown-skinned “zoot suiters” in downtown Los Angeles. The local press had been beating a drum of fear that a “Mexican crime wave” had hit the city and “zoot suiters” and “gangsters” were one and the same.
“Zoot suits” were also deemed unpatriotic. Their wider lapels and longer tailoring used more fabric, which like everything else had been rationed for the war effort. In white society, hemlines rose, pleats and cuffs were banned, and two-piece women’s bathing suits became acceptable. In whites’ eyes, Hispanics in their “zoot suits” were undermining the war effort.
Sailors and Marines descended on Hispanic neighborhoods in force:
The following evening, a mob of about 200 sailors, tired of boredom and fired up with bigotry, hired a fleet of cabs and rolled into East Los Angeles to beat up and strip the clothing off any young Latino male they could find. The authorities seemed to approve. Police made a few initial token arrests of sailors, but they were quickly released. This emboldened the sailors. For several subsequent nights, the swelling mobs of sailors were joined by soldiers and some civilians as they invaded the barrio, marching abreast down streets, invading bars and movie houses, assaulting and humiliating any and all young Latino males, many not attired in “zoot suits.” Young Black and Filipino males unfortunate enough to be in the area were also assaulted. Mobs of servicemen in search of “zoot suiters” also prowled the Pike in Long Beach. Although police accompanied the caravans of rioting servicemen, police orders were to let the shore patrol and military police deal with military men. Instead, after several days of rioting and assaults by servicemen, more than 150 had been injured and police had arrested and charged more than 500 Latino youths for “rioting” or “vagrancy,” many themselves the victims. The local press lauded the military rioters for confronting the menace of the “Mexican crime wave.” “Zoot Suiters Learn Lesson in Fight with Servicemen,” declared the Los Angeles Times.
Ultimately military officials, not the Los Angeles police, ended the rioting by declaring Los Angeles off-limits to military personnel. But by then the narrative had been planted and, over the coming weeks, anti-Hispanic violence spread to San Diego and Oakland, and as far as Chicago, Texas, and New York City.
Always outspoken on racial inequality, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stepped forward with what seems in retrospect a mild statement:
The question goes deeper than just [zoot] suits. It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should.
On June 18th, the Los Angeles Times fired back with the headline Mrs. Roosevelt Blindly Stirs Race Discord, and an op-ed accused the First Lady of being a communist. All because she saw the obvious: that white servicemen sacking a Hispanic neighborhood, while police stood by and arrested the victims, reeked of racism. Or as she put it, “we do not always face these problems as we should.”
It’s worth remembering this context when we hear Republicans accuse President Obama of being a socialist and fomenting racial division. We’ve seen this happen before … Once Upon Today.