A large crowd of soldier, sailors, and marines stop a streetcar during their search for pachuca “zoot suiters” in Los Angeles.

How Racism, War, and Fashion Fueled the Zoot Suit Riots

In early June 1943, a mob of white servicemen went on a multi-day rampage throughout Los Angeles. Thousands of the soldiers, sailors, and Marines tasked with defending American democracy beat, stripped, and mutilated Mexican American, Black, and Filipino youth at random, enraged by their allegedly unpatriotic attire. The Zoot Suit Riots were a shameful episode in U.S. history. Similar forms of oppression and resistance continue to the present day. 

Zoot suits were loose-fitting suits popularized by the dance halls of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance. They were adopted by Mexican American pachucos in Los Angeles who witnessed the zoot suits of touring Black musicians (KCET). For working-class Black and Brown young men to wear such luxurious attire had “profound political meaning,” in the words of author Ralph Ellison (Smithsonian). But white society saw the zoot suit as a sign of criminality, with the Los Angeles Times calling it a “badge of delinquency” worn by “organized bands of marauders” in an article published days before the riots. Pachucos “were increasingly viewed by affluent whites as menacing street thugs, gang members and rebellious juvenile delinquents” (History). 


See if your community has laws against hair discrimination. 

• Are there discriminatory hair or clothing policies at your work, school, or other social institutions? How can you rally support to advocate for their removal? 

Consider: Why do you choose to wear the clothing that you do? In what ways does it validate your understanding of your own identity? Are your clothing choices encouraged, allowed, or prohibited by social institutions?

Since oversized zoot suits violated wartime fabric rationing, mainstream white society painted zoot suit wearers as unpatriotic. And pachucos wearing zoot suits were portrayed as draft dodgers, though many were exempt as minors. A conflict between Mexican American youth and a white sailor on May 31, 1943, was all it took to unleash the violence. On June 3, 50 sailors stormed through downtown Los Angeles with improvised weapons, hunting for people wearing zoot suits (History). By June 7, thousands of military members and white civilians were rioting across the city. Black, Mexican American, and Filipino men wearing zoot suits were attacked and stripped naked in the street. Police officers permitted the violence before arresting the victims. People of color who weren’t wearing zoot suits were also targeted, like a Black man returning from work whose eye was cut out by a white mob. 

According to one witness: 

“On Monday evening, June seventh, thousands of Angelenos … turned out for a mass lynching. Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot-suiter they could find. Street cars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked out of their seats, pushed into the streets, and beaten with sadistic frenzy” (History). 

On June 10, 1943, soldiers were finally recalled to their barracks, ending the riots. But there were similar racist zoot suit riots in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit that year (History). And attacking communities of color by associating clothing with criminality never stopped. Sagging pants, clothing of certain colors, bandanas, and jerseys are banned in bars and nightclubs through policies seemingly only enforced against Black or Brown patrons (NPRPortland Mercury). Black students are forced out of school by policies that categorize dreadlocks or braided extensions as “distractions” (Vox). Police try to justify murders by saying that their targets “looked like” gang members. 

Zoot suits were scapegoated as unpatriotic waste during wartime rationing. Today, the poor are shamed for being poor and for not acting poor enough, especially if they’re Black or Brown. Conservatives circulate horror stories of food stamp recipients having the audacity to buy expensive food with their EBT cards (Huffington Post). Rebellious protesters who took electronics from storefronts during the summer of 2020 were criticized for not, instead, looting pantry staples like proper poor people (NPR). These critics pretended to be unaware that a free-market economy allows people to sell electronics and use the proceeds to then purchase food.

But we should all have access to beauty and luxury. Zoot suits were political because they were opulent clothing created by and for Black and Brown youth in a racist power structure that saw them only as potential laborers or criminals. Poor people claiming space for creativity, self-expression, and luxury remains a political and subversive act. We can honor the legacy of those persecuted in the Zoot Suit Riots by rejecting racist and classist regulations, norms, and ideas. 


• Thousands of white military members and civilians attacked Mexican American, Black, and Filipino youth during the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943 Los Angeles. 

• Zoot suits were associated with criminality and unpatriotic wartime opulence.

• Similar justifications are given for racist hair and clothing bans today.

1546 1180 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

All stories by : Andrew Lee
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