Luis Alvarez. The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. xiii + 318 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-25301-8.
Reviewed by Bruce M. Tyler (University of Louisville)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Robert C. Chidester (The Mannik & Smith Group, Inc.)
Zoot Suit Culture in the 1940s in the United States
Luis Alvarez has produced a book on Zoot Suit culture in the United States in the World War II years. Without much doubt, this finely crafted book is and will be the most definitive work on the subject for many years to come because of the wide array of sources used and the equally broad inclusion of ethnic groups. Alvarez uses the most modern social theory on culture and ethnicity, contested space theories, ideas regarding race rebellion, and historical social science theories to explain both male and female participation in Zoot culture. He views this culture as essentially, but not exclusively, a youth culture seeking dignity, as well as a place in the United States as legitimate persons with their own style, language, dance patterns, and sexual mores. In short, Zoot Suit culture was a complete, chosen, and highly cultivated lifestyle to which many minority youths and young adults became wedded in their private and public lives. Yet, many public officials, the police, and white military personnel regarded it as the outlaw style of a social group that required repression. They judged Zooters as criminals or juvenile delinquents. Style warfare evolved between those persons wearing Zooter uniforms, military uniforms, and wartime factory work garb, all of whom were in a contest for attention, dignity, and manhood or womanhood. In a limited public space, some people felt they should defend themselves and exclude the Other. This is the context in which Alvarez explains his book. Much of the information he includes comes from prior scholarship on Zoot society and culture.
Alvarez uses the most comprehensive and complex sources available on the subject of Zoot Suit culture. He examines a wide variety of archival collections and government documents that are scattered across the United States, as well as oral history interviews that he conducted. His secondary sources are the best collection used and recorded in one place or in one book. These sources include a large number of well-known materials and new materials not widely used or even known. He makes good use of newspaper stories from across the nation on Zoot Suiters. For these sources alone and the excellent interpretive context that Alvarez uses, his book is the most definitive book ever on Zoot Suit culture and society in the 1940s, the zenith of this cultural phenomenon.
To explain Zoot Suit society and culture, Alvarez uses vital cultural and social science themes. He discusses how dignity was denied to minority youths in Los Angeles, the South, the North, and the Midwest in the political economy of the early years of World War II mobilization in the United States. Minority youths were turned away. They were not wanted in public spaces, in parks or on public streets in many major cities. Their presence was regarded as loitering. Jobs and housing, which racial discrimination often restricted, were difficult for them and their parents to find as migrations intensified. The President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practices found that employment discrimination was common and pervasive. Minority youths resented this private and public discrimination against them and their parents.
Intense social class conflict and juvenile delinquency charges and counter-charges resulted in fights erupting between white authorities and minority youths and adults. The white press characterized minority youths as gangsters and juvenile delinquents, and police harassed them on public streets. Black and Hispanic youth recognized this racialization of juvenile delinquency in wartime Los Angeles and New York City. There was pressure on mayors in each city to repress and rigorously police minority youth.
Many Zoot Suiters were attracted to jazz music and ballroom dancing, and they were sometimes joined by some white youths who appreciated this musical and dance culture and Zoot Suit styles as well. This interracial mixing alarmed police, white parents, and whites in general. Many whites were committed white supremacists and benefited from their privileged white skin positions in getting first opportunities denied to minorities. More and more, minorities defied white hierarchy and publicly challenged the status quo or attempted to retreat to their ethnic enclaves where police and mobs often sought them out to attack in race riots. Conflict resulted from these cultural challenges, and the police intervened to repress race rebel minority youths disenchanted with the doctrines and practices of domination. These altercations often led to the criminalization of minority youth and young adults with trumpeted charges, beatings, jailings, and convictions; they also led to police records that dogged them and resulted in more reasons to segregate and discriminate against them.
Racial tensions erupted into mass racial riots and violence in New York City; Beaumont, Texas; Los Angeles, California; Detroit, Michigan; Mobile, Alabama; and many other cities and towns. Police and white military personnel often attacked minorities and their youth, and especially Zoot Suiters. The white press often instigated and condoned violence against minorities and blamed them for the violence. The police took sides with white soldiers and civilians against minorities. On the one hand, minority newspaper writers and some legal defense groups noted and loudly protested against this racial partisanship against minorities. Many minority leaders defended themselves by claiming that disruptions of mass violence harmed wartime industry. Riots disrupted work and reduced supplies to the front lines. On the other hand, whites self-righteously charged that minorities were violating the race rules of subordination and getting out of their place and that minorities were not justified in defying white supremacy.
In summary, Alvarez explains the era of Jim Crow and white supremacy as a problem that went unsolved during the 1940s. Minority groups and youth often fought for their individual and collective dignity, manhood, and womanhood. They fought for their right to use public space and for their inclusion as citizens in every area of American life and culture. Minorities in the World War II years demanded a Double V, or victory at home and abroad for democracy; they fought on two fronts for this victory, and it was a frightful double burden. Alvarez explains Zoot Suiters as one of the tips of the spears in this complex fight. His book is a superb addition to the literature on the subject, and his scholarship is now the best and most comprehensive book on Zoot Suit culture, society, and race conflict during World War II.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-urban.
Bruce M. Tyler. Review of Alvarez, Luis, The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II.
H-Urban, H-Net Reviews.
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