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The Kids Are Alright

Maurice Earls

Zoot Suit, The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style, Kathy Peiss, University of Pennsylvania Press, 238 pp, $24.95 ISBN: 9780812243376

The key attributes of the classic US zoot were very high-waisted pleated trousers which ballooned out at the knees and were pegged in at the ankles. Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary defines zoot as something done in an exaggerated style and describes the suit as having “a long killer-diller coat with a drape shape and wide shoulders; pants with reet pleats, billowing out at the knees, tightly tapered and pegged at the ankles; a pork pie or wide brimmed hat; pointed or thick soled shoes; and a long dangling key chain”. The zoot enjoyed a significant afterlife through Teddy Boy drapes in the 1950s and, in more recent times, in a steady retro celebration, one of the latest being in the distinctive form of the talented showman singer Cee Lo Green. In Europe the extreme dress of the zoot era was often quite different from the classic US style, whereas in Canada, Trinidad and Mexico, it was similar.

One question which arises early on in Kathy Peiss’s thoughtful and comprehensive narrative relates to the ways in which the zoot suit can be regarded as political. Peiss is uncomfortable with the assumption of many academic commentators who ‑ influenced by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University ‑ argue that the phenomenon was deeply political and that it was primarily about resistance. However, while Peiss rejects the idea that the aesthetic is subsumed by the political, she does not deny the political dimension and seems, rather, to call for greater nuance in unfolding the relationship between the two.

Perhaps the zoot suit is best thought of as having something to do with race, sex, coming of age and letting the older generation know that another one ‑ one with new ideas and a greater purchase on the future ‑ had arrived. And maybe that is political, even if not in the classic sense of a class-based struggle for resources. Certainly the zoot suit evoked a political response among its critics, who appear to have experienced pronounced political fears concerning the wider ramifications of the phenomenon.

In Los Angeles in 1943 the extreme youth fashion sparked violent rioting, when sailors on shore leave descended on young Mexican Americans who favoured the dramatic style. Peiss tells us that “... the zoot suit appeared across the main fault lines of social difference in the United States ‑ among Filipinos, Japanese Americans, men of Jewish and Italian descent, jitterbug crazy middle-class boys, Mexican American women and working class lesbians”. But it was only in LA that it was the focus of violent riots. Sergeant William D Eastlake, who was on duty as a military policeman during the riot, later wrote to Time magazine saying that servicemen had ganged up on civilian youths: “I found the zooter on most occasions outnumbered 200 to one.” Most LA press coverage ‑ dominated by the Hearst media ‑ was thoroughly hostile to the zoots. Clearly something more than simple fashion issues was at stake.

Variants of the distinctive urban fashion appeared in American cities and spread to many countries around the world, including occupied and Vichy France, South Africa, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. (Although enthusiastic for swing, Ireland does not appear to have had extreme dressers in the early forties. If there were hepcats attending “Billy Brennan’s barn” and other unlicensed dance halls around the country, they dressed in the standard manner.) Internationally, the extreme style and its political meanings varied considerably from place to place; the common factor was young people asserting themselves. Sometimes what they were asserting themselves against was clear, at other times, less so.

Cab Calloway wore a version of the zoot suit in The Blues Brothers (1980) which introduced a new generation to the tale of Minnie the Moocher that “red hot hoochie coocher” who fell for a “bloke named Smokey”. When Smokey took her down to Chinatown and “showed her how to kick the gong around” she fell to dreaming of a better life with the king of Sweden “who [needless to say] gave her things she was needin’”, but, of course, it was only a Chinatown dream. Hi di hi di hi!

Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary, which went to six editions, sold two million copies and also, undoubtedly, had a vast oral circulation, explains that “kicking the gong around” meant smoking opium. The story of Minnie with her heart “as big as a whale” is the old story of the beautiful and somewhat innocent young woman who falls for a useless cad, one who gives her things that she ain’t needin’ and by whom she is thereby destroyed, or, as in the popular Betty Boop animated version, severely chastened. The Betty Boop version dealt metaphorically and indirectly with the issues the song disguised behind hepster slang. As a result both were huge successes and the gifted Calloway was the first artist to break the colour bar of the major broadcasters. Race was the simmering political issue within the US at the time; the entertainment world consistently challenged racist assumptions as did the fact of growincg engagement with aspects of minority cultures. Race and ethnic diversity were central to the politics of the era and it is impossible to make sense of the zoot suit saga without reference to race.

Calloway performed Minnie the Moocher and other songs with his various bands from around 1930. Initially he wore conventional swallow tails, switching to the zoot suit in the early forties. The brilliant son of a lawyer, Calloway declined to follow his father’s profession and instead skipped off to Chicago and became part of the jazz explosion that was emerging from African America and which was to change the way the world thought about music. The rise of jazz was roughly contemporaneous with the rise of authoritarian politics in Europe. If the new politics was about doing what you were told, the new music was about freedom, and many of those who refused to toe the line as enunciated by Vichy, Jim Crow America, the Nazis or the Communist occupation forces of postwar Europe, were lovers of jazz. Many embraced extreme dress, adopting a self-consciously liberal ethos which, in effect, was a standing rejection of the authoritarian style.

The high era of jazz was the inter-war period. The new music was an art form very much of its time and emerged in Europe in the years following the 1914-18 war, where many African American musicians decided to remain when the hostilities ended. Jazz grew in popularity throughout the glamorous twenties but the crash of 1929, which in no small measure enabled the rise of Nazism, also affected the world of music. The mood for fun was dissipating and in the US record sales fell from 140 million units in 1927 to six million in 1932.

Depressions eventually end and the slow re-emergence from depression in the US was marked by the arrival of swing in 1935. This was a music which, even more than jazz in the 1920s, was enthusiastically embraced by young people as a core element of their self-understanding and identity. It spoke more eloquently than any treatise could of the superiority of beauty and freedom over bullying and authoritarianism, and, if anything, it built on the libidinal freedom of ragtime. In the earlier period conservative forces, sometimes embodying the deep-seated Calvinist suspicion of dancing, were viscerally hostile. One New England music critic commented “Here is a rude noise which emerged from the hinterlands of brothels and dives, presented in a Negroid manner by Jews most often ...” Similar objections were voiced internationally, but these had petered out by the early forties.

Wearing the zoot suit appears to have started among young African Americans during the Harlem jazz renaissance; nevertheless one of its first widespread manifestations was among second generation Mexican Americans in the Los Angeles area. And it is in LA that the phenomenon is most noted because of the ugly riots there in June 1943, which left over a hundred people seriously injured. The riots commenced when approximately fifty sailors came into the city centre and attacked zoot suit wearers, stripping them of their garments. Within a few days many white Anglos joined the sailors and the numbers involved swelled to five thousand. Private homes were invaded, young men were hauled from trolley buses and cinema managers were forced to turn on the lights so that the audience could be checked for zoot suits. Once, when a victim was debagged on a cinema stage following a chase, the audience cheered. Clearly the event resembled a pogrom.

One thing Peiss emphasises is that the young people who wore zoot suits in LA were, for the most part, kids who went home to their families after strutting their stuff. (Two GIs on frontline duty wrote to Newsweek after the attacks criticising “the shore-duty jerks who can find no better way of filling their time than mauling a bunch of high-school kids”). The zoot suit was, as Peiss says, particularly attractive to marginal young men who were into jitterbug and swing. According to one source, guys who wore zoot suits were “guys who could really dance”. (Calloway himself was a superb dancer, decidedly better than Michael Jackson in the opinion of many.)

The assertive style of the young Mexican Americans worried their parents, who disapproved ‑ as did the Mexican American political and cultural elites. The poet Octavio Paz, who lived in Los Angeles at the time, denounced the zoot suit’s negativity which, I think it is fair to say, gets it approximately one hundred per cent wrong.

These young LA zooters do not seem particularly hard to understand. They left no record of their thoughts but it is clear from their behaviour – being cool and dancing swing in outrageous yet decidedly sharp clothes ‑ that what they were about was assertion, which, apart from the obvious sexual element, clearly included a latent rejection of racial and economic subordination. But as is often the case, this youthful assertion was tinged with profound innocence. Youthful innocence sometimes doesn’t matter; white zooters for example were left alone. But in the case of the young Hispanic zooters in LA it did matter, in that many were beaten and humiliated. It also mattered for some other zooters, including the jazz-crazy Zazous of occupied and Vichy France, not to speak of those in Nazi Germany. By comparison those in Soviet Russia appear to have got off quite lightly.

The Zazous are said to have taken their name from the Calloway song Zaz Zuh Zaz which, as it happens, also features Minnie, Smokey and kicking the gong: “Now here’s a very entrancing phrase, It will put you in a daze, To me it don’t mean a thing, But it’s got a very peculiar swing!” For many young people ‑ and some not so young ‑ around the world, swing had plenty of meaning; it was about the magic of freedom, a force more natural and real that the dark dreams of intellectual racists and xenophobes. As the French painter Henri Matisse put it: “Jazz is rhythm, it is meaning.”

Unlike folk and blues, jazz was never inward-looking: a music with African roots using European orchestral instruments, it was self-consciously hybrid. The new music which was light on lyrics travelled easily bearing its message of emotional freedom and equality. Many varieties of jazz emerged around the world from France to India. Artists and aficionados tended to embrace the causes of oppressed peoples as their own. This ethic of solidarity lay behind Louis Armstrong’s performance of Black Irish Bottom while, as usual, wearing his Star of David:

All you heard for years in Ireland,

was The Wearin’ Of The Green,

but the biggest change that’s come in Ireland

I have ever seen.

All the laddies and the cooies

laid aside their Irish reels,

and I was born in Ireland

(Ha, Ha), so imagine how I feels.

Now Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy,

see them dance,

you ought to see them dance.

Something of an overstatement, but there is an element of truth. Jazz was popular in the twenties and even more so in the era of swing. Some musicians from ceili bands took up jazz and, certainly by the early forties, the dancehalls were resounding to an Irish interpretation of the new music as enthusiastic dancers performed exciting variants of swing dances bearing locally inspired names such as “diggin’ potatoes”. In the early 1930s an anti-jazz league emerged in remote Co Leitrim concerned about the danger to traditional music and morals, but its influence was minimal. A march was held in Mohill with chants of “Down with Paganism” but, as they say, it didn’t catch on. In the forties and later, jazz was not generally forbidden in clerically controlled dance halls, whose only really distinctive feature was closing for Lent. The elemental force of music was one area where ideological clerics ‑ whose influence is often overestimated in historical accounts of the era ‑ discovered the limits of their authority. In the heyday of swing, the anti-jazz league was a spent force.

In the inter-war period many black American artists chose bohemian Europe, and in particular what has been called Harlem in Montmartre, to escape the racial prejudice which persisted in the US. Cab Calloway performed in Paris but did not move there. His career at home was so successful and his music generated so much money that voluntary exile was not attractive. His act was the first African American show to tour the South, challenging the culture of Jim Crow (the series of laws and regulations designed to impose a de facto apartheid on African Americans in the southern states). It has been said that when Calloway encountered racial difficulties when travelling on tour he was sufficiently wealthy to charter a private train.

A sizable jazz culture existed in interwar Paris, featuring artists such as Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet and French masters such as Stéphane Grapelli and the Romany Django Reinhardt. The Paris scene, like jazz culture elsewhere, was hostile to regimentation and racial discrimination, favouring personal freedom and equality and tending to identify with and support victims of oppression. The scene was a centre of excitement and stimulating music. All was well until July 1940 when the Nazis arrived in this hard-partying haven of creativity. Their racism, with its particular hostility towards Jews and blacks (Josephine Baker’s husband was Jewish), made the US version look less unbearable. However, by this stage the remarkable Baker had such status and popularity in France that even the Nazis baulked at interfering with her. Notwithstanding this tolerance, she knew where her political loyalties lay and throughout the war she spied diligently for the French. As a celebrity she rubbed shoulders with powerful people, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, duly reporting everything of note she learned to the resistance. She also carried messages across borders, secure that her fame would exclude her from strip-searching. Baker’s commitment to equality was lifelong. In 1963, wearing her Free French uniform, she stood beside Martin Luther King at the March on Washington and was the only woman to speak at the rally.

Eugene Bullard was another larger than life American of colour in Montmartre at the time. He had served in the French Foreign Legion during WW1 and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Later he served as a fighter pilot with the French air force. When the US entered the war they set about recruiting their citizens who were in the Lafayette Flying Corps. As Bullard was black, he was not accepted into the American service since blacks were not permitted to fly US planes. After the war he worked in various night clubs, eventually opening his own club, where he became friendly with major musicians and performers including Josephine Baker. When the Second World War broke out he also began to spy for the resistance, passing on whatever he heard in his club. Some Germans were indiscreet in front of him, assuming the black American could not speak German, whereas he was in fact fluent. In 1954 he was invited to return to France to light the eternal flame at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and, in 1994, thirty three years after his death, he was posthumously commissioned as a second lieutenant in the USAF.

Around this vibrant world of famous and less famous musicians stood numerous French jazz enthusiasts, including the youthful Zazous who did not at all welcome the Nazis with their racism and rules. When the occupation forces decreed that Jews must wear a yellow star some Zazous decided to add to their jackets a yellow star emblazoned with the word swing, in solidarity with the oppressed Jewish population. Many of these brave youngsters ended up in labour camps.

Like the American zoot suit wearers the Zazous danced enthusiastically to swing and dressed in an extreme style. But in wartime Paris there was a clearer political dimension to this youth subculture. Their extravagant jackets and trousers were a dismissive comment on the desire of the occupying forces to ration fabric in the interests of the war effort. Some Zazous, it is said, also carried furled umbrellas ‑ seen as a quintessentially English accessory ‑ as a sign of their desire for an allied victory. Zazou women also followed a zoot style, with short pleated skirts, striped stockings, drape-style jackets and thick-soled shoes. The Nazis and French fascists saw them as degenerates; the communists saw them as insufficiently serious. Nazi censorship banned the use of the word Zazou in the theatre and Fascist groups organised attacks on young Zazous under the slogan “scalp the Zazous”. (Zazous wore long hair partly in opposition to the Nazi effort to collect hair from barber shops to support the war effort.) Many were arrested and sent into the countryside as forced labourers.

Supposedly sealed ideological borders had little effect on the broad reach of swing which, from the mid-thirties, building on Weimar cosmopolitanism, grew in popularity among young dance enthusiasts in the Nazi homeland. Here was another setting where youthful enthusiasm and assertion were dangerous. In the later 1930s the German state was engaged in its massive programme of social engineering and cultural control which the swing cliques, as the Nazis called them, blatantly challenged. With the militarisation of the Hitlerjugend, (Hitler Youth) the regime’s plans for German youth became clearer and the challenge of the Swingjugend more explicit. According to one account:

Because the Swingjugend hardly bothered about curfews, bans on dancing, or the ban on listening to so-called “enemy radio stations” once the war began, they got into further conflicts with the Nazi state. Added to this, the Swingjugend began to express their oppositional stance more and more explicitly. This ranged from their mockery of the Nazi movement through provocative actions and violent confrontations to their refusal of compulsory membership in the Hitlerjugend (HJ, or Hitler Youth) and in the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM, or League of German Girls) or of military service in the army.

The affronted Nazis began to apply pressure on these autonomous and internationally oriented young people. The Gestapo detained, interrogated and abused many of the Swingjugend, both girls and boys. In 1942 Himmler demanded that they all be locked up and called for the utmost brutality in dealing with the problem. They were, after all, a standing denial of Nazi propaganda regarding the German soul. Some dissidents committed suicide, others, it may be assumed, conformed and in Hamburg – which was something of a dissident youth centre ‑ between forty and seventy Swing Boys and Swing Girls were sent to Nazi concentration camps. The boys, who were below military age, were forced to work in munitions factories. In the evenings they secretly amused themselves with versions of songs such as Jeepers Creepers, Sweet Sue and The Flat Foot Floogie. Some of the girls did the same. Jutta Madlung, one of the Swing Girls, recalled versions of In the Mood and A Tisket a Tasket after lights out.

Around Cologne it is estimated there were about three thousand dissident young people, both working class and middle class, who were into jazz to varying degrees. There were many similar groups around the country who were known collectively as Edelweiss Pirates, in addition to their local names. The numerous working class dissidents wore Edelweiss pins and refused to participate in Nazi activities. They also had a distinctive style of dress, long hair, colourful check shirts and short dark trousers – not exactly zoot suits, but the underlying idea was not dissimilar. The girls rejected conventional German braids and wore their hair down, with short skirts, nail polish and lipstick. Their opposition was embodied in their appearance. According to one source:

As the war progressed, so did the seriousness of the activities in which the Edelweiss Pirates participated. Pirates in Cologne “offered shelter to German army deserters, escaped prisoners from concentration camps and escapees from forced labor camps”, says Rogow, [Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre] while others “made armed raids on military depots and deliberately sabotaged war production.” Still others played pranks on the Nazis. [Jean] Jülich recalls how he and his friends threw bricks through munitions factories and poured sugar water into the petrol tanks of Nazis’ cars. Other Pirates vandalized city walls, spray painting them with lines such as “Down with Hitler” or “Down with Nazi Brutality”. Some stole, looting food and supplies from stores or freight trains, or derailed train cars full of ammunition and supplied adult resistance groups with explosives. Pirates from different towns would “meet in the countryside, to swap information gained from illegally listening to the BBC World Service, or to plan leaflet drops in each other’s towns so the local police would not recognize them,” Hannah Cleaver of the Daily Telegraph (London) says. Leaflets contained allied propaganda or encouraged German soldiers to quit their fighting and return to their families.”

Captured pirates were jailed, put in psychiatric hospitals, sent to concentration camps or killed. Pirate Bartholomaeus Schink, a teenager, who was planning to blow up a Gestapo building, was publicly hanged, without trial, in 1944. The postwar German state was slow to acknowledge the Pirates. Grown-ups have a deep-seated resistance to praising unruly youths and the Pirates were no exception. In 1988 the Edelweiss Pirates were recognised as “righteous among nations” by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and, eventually, in 2005 they were officially recognised as “freedom fighters” in Germany.

In the US the war finally ended the long years of depression, with its hand-me-down clothes and economic uncertainty. Suddenly there was well paid work for all ‑ a young war industry worker could earn $100 a week ‑ and the US government had a “good neighbour” policy towards Mexico. Mexican labour was needed to keep Californian agriculture going. Illegal immigrants were no longer repatriated; the world of the deportee was a bad memory. Young Mexicans waiting to be inducted into the army had work and plenty of money and those still in high school found themselves in households with a lot more cash than previously. And if the parents were unsure about spending it, the children were not.

There are obvious parallels with Trinidad’s young Saga Boys, who were from a community which experienced a huge liberation with the advent of war. These Caribbean youths adopted the extreme drape style with enthusiasm in the early 1940s. The British had agreed to allow the US build a massive military base on their colony in 1941, which brought work, wages and US consumer goods on an unprecedented scale. Peiss, referring to historian Harvey Neptune’s analysis, comments: “Neptune explains the zoot suit conveyed a new sense of social and economic independence: Saga boys used the extreme American style as a way to repudiate the British authorities’ demands on male colonial subjects for ‘humility, discipline, and respectability’.” After the war the prosperity ebbed and many Trinidadians emigrated to the UK, where a good number made it quite clear that they were done with humility.

The Mexican American drape kids, who tended to be the socially marginalised element of that community, were in part saying, whether consciously or otherwise, that they were not for taking the old-fashioned humility road. But in this case, their parents’ concerns were more than a simple case of being out of date. Their experience since the twenties, which involved many humiliations, meant they understood that they were accepted in the US, but only as second class citizens. Survival required a certain level of collaboration. In the exuberance of youth some of their children discounted all this, and in their wonderful self-absorption failed to see the threat of violence behind the institutionalised discrimination, the housing segregation, the unfair jobs market, the bars they were not allowed to patronise or the beach fronts where they were not supposed to show.

Young upwardly mobile Mexican Americans were somewhat different and hitched their wagon to the possibilities of assimilation through collaboration with the Anglo establishment, including its prejudices. The Mexican Voice, described by Peiss as the voice of educated young Mexican Americans, criticised the lack of assimilation in the broader emigré Mexican community, saying: “We Mexicans have found it difficult to dismiss our cultural heritage, our Spanish language, our food habits and the like.” But ironically, the despised drape kids were really engaged in high speed assimilation, so much so that they scared the establishment. Those Mexican Americans lucky enough to be climbing the ladder were worried: “regardless of who is to blame, these teensters ... are giving our group a bad name.” In Mexico itself the attitude was somewhat different. There, there was also hostility to the Pachuco youths, but it was from the position of rejecting Americanisation. A headline in La Prensa read: “Without Being Truly Mexicans They Are an Embarrassment to Our Republic”. Octavio Paz spoke of the Pachuco – the drape-wearing Mexican American ‑ as one who had “lost his whole inheritance” as a Mexican yet was not accepted as an American. The Pachuco’s “grotesque dandyism” was a disguise that at once “both hides him and points him out”. Despite the hostile tone this last observation is quite accurate and not at odds with the idea that the LA zooters wished to be free and American.

The parents of the drape kids took the view that it was best to keep their heads down and not to attract attention in order that their families might make slow but steady progress. The Pachucos, on the other hand, clearly thought “This is America, the land of the free, what’s the problem?” For them the legacy of discrimination was a contradiction which they rejected, one that would be ironed out in the new modern world. In the real America, the home of the free, the future was jazz swing, jiving and jitterbug, a world without prejudice and discrimination; it was freedom. And they were right, at least in part; America was not and did not see itself as comparable to racist authoritarian countries in Europe. The Andrews Sisters’ 1941 hit Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy showed that the jazz culture of liberation was present also in the mainstream of American wartime culture. The same point could be made of the many servicemen who adjusted their uniforms ‑ some even zooted them ‑ in order to express their individuality. Throughout the days of the riot the cry “This is supposed to be a free country” was heard constantly from young Mexican Americans. America had to make up its mind and the zoot suiters were one of many stimuli the US experienced in its journey away from the pattern of post-slavery apartheid. For the Saga Boys of Trinidad the situation was a little different. They could not, of course, raise the cry that Trinidad was supposed to be a free country; a colony, after all, is not supposed to be a free country.

So if the older generation of Mexican Americans was right, so too were their non-conformist children. The twentieth century United States was destined to deal with the “contradiction” of racial prejudice and to become a place where it would be taboo to express racist views, at least in public. It’s just that it didn’t happen overnight and it certainly didn’t happen over those few weeks in June 1943. The process ran for about a century from the Civil War, with the Second World War period ‑ including the zoot suit riots ‑ being a catalyst for heightened progress. Peiss’s careful analysis leaves it beyond doubt that the attacks on the young Mexican Americans were racially motivated. As the African American writer Chester Himes stated: “Zoot riots are race riots.” Many other commentators outside LA took a similar view. But, during and after the riots, the bulk of the LA establishment doggedly stuck to the view that it was the fault of the zoot suit and those who wore it.

The hostility of the press and the police in LA towards the zoot suiters in the period prior to the riots is another salient fact to emerge from Peiss’s narrative. The Hearst press consistently associated the suits with criminality and deviance. During and following the riots the mainstream LA papers enthusiastically supported attacks on the zoots. The Herald-Express actually published instructions on how to “de-zoot”. “Grab a zooter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up or burn them. Trim the ‘Argentine ducktail’ that goes with the screwy costume.”

The police, it seems, also added to the fabricated poison. According to Peiss, in a secret investigation of racial conditions in 1943, FBI agents claimed they had received reports of “wives of navy men being robbed and raped by ‘zoot suiters’”. After the riot a police captain testified: “In many cases they grab a young couple, tie the escort up, rape the girl and then urinate on them.” These false and incendiary rumours had, it seems, reached the sailors based in Los Angeles.

The liberal and left press repeatedly pointed out the racial basis of the attacks: “First, Mexicans, and then Negroes were attacked regardless of their garb.” “I have no information,” one press commentator added “of a single instance in which a white zoot suiter was attacked by either civilians or service men.”

There was clearly an aspect of sexual humiliation to the public stripping of young men ‑ along with the blatant racism. In one case the police stopped a car full of African American men and stood by as soldiers stripped them of their pants. According to a report in the New York Amsterdam News, it was believed that the public attack on the youths took place because there was a white woman in the vehicle.

Many Mexican American girls adopted a version of the zoot suit which involved a knee-length skirt and a zoot-style jacket. The recurring sexual motif, pervasive in racist thinking, was baldly expressed in a newspaper article which, it is reported, portrayed Mexican American women as diseased prostitutes. When a group of young Latinas, who worked in war industries while their male relatives were in the military, was denied the right of reply, they marched to Juvenile Hall insisting that physicians be officially appointed to examine them to confirm they were virgins. “Half of us girls were zooters and the other half squares,” one girl recalled.

In the aftermath of the attacks, many bigoted views were expressed by political figures and others, but overall the finding seemed to be that there was a problem in racial attitudes which had to be addressed. News broadcaster Chet Huntly gave his opinion on the CBS radio show The World. He called the riots a moment of reckoning and said it didn’t make sense that white Americans were prejudiced against Mexican Americans while enjoying Hispanic music, art and cuisine. He said that education and opportunity should be offered in order to promote amalgamation, so that everyone could realise the promise of American ideals. Huntly’s views seem like those of a visitor from a more civilised future.

But if Huntly was a visitor from the future does that mean that the US is now free of racist feeling, particularly anti-black sentiment? Well no, it doesn’t. But things have improved; there is, after all, a black president. Yet, the African American actor Morgan Freeman has recently maintained that Tea Party criticism of Obama is fuelled by prejudice against the colour of the president’s skin. On the other hand, Herman Cain, an African American Tea Party candidate for the 2012 presidential election, has dismissed this. While racist prejudice against the president certainly exists, Herman Cain’s position is perhaps more credible in that the source of the visceral hostility to Barrack Obama would appear to lie elsewhere. The Tea Party’s extremist politics is essentially about rolling back government. They have neither the time nor the appetite for extraneous matters.

The “rolling back of government” business is a first cousin of the free market Chicago economics under which the bulk of the western world has lived for several decades. If, as seems likely ‑ despite the fulminations of the Tea Party ‑ the Chicago orthodoxy is blamed for the pain of the international recession and the extension of real poverty out from the underclass ‑ where, in the US, African Americans are over-represented ‑ into more settled social strata, perhaps we can expect a cultural outburst from the young. Let us hope that the world does not have too long to wait: a breath of fresh air is sorely needed.


Maurice Earls is a bookseller and joint editor of the drb.

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