In his article, “Racial Injustice, Racial Discrimination, and Racism: How Are They
Related?” author D.C. Matthews states, “Racial justice, it is clear, is a part of justice. As a part of justice, it clearly falls in the domain of morality” (887). This idea is saying, essentially, that it falls under the jurisdiction of our own morality to ensure that we stomp out racial injustice where we see it. Matthews goes on to say, “racial discrimination is necessary for the creation of racial injustice” (901). But while these ideas of racial discrimination and injustice are easily discussed as abstract concepts, it is important to note that they have very real human consequences. This is illustrated particularly well in Luis Valdez’s play, Zoot Suit. Valdez’s play exemplifies how racial discrimination and injustice can alter how the dominant culture views a minority culture, particularly in regards to an association with minorities and crime. The way dominant culture views minority cultures, in turn, affects how members of that minority culture view themselves, which Valdez portrays through the dialogue between Henry, the protagonist, and his inner voice, the Pachuco. Racial discrimination causes dominant cultures to see minorities as threatening, criminal, and nefarious, which then informs the way those minority cultures view themselves, unconsciously conforming to these profiles.
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The way Valdez structures his courtroom scenes plays well into this idea of racial injustice and discrimination. The role of the prosecution is designed to be played by the same actor that plays the embodiment of the press. This is symbolic of the idea that the press is using Henry and his 38th Street group to vilify a trend popular with minority cultures, the zoot suit attire, thus vilifying those very cultures. This is pointed out by the group’s defense attorney, George, when he says to the jury, “All the prosecution has proven is that these boys wear long hair and zoot suits… [The prosecution] tried to lead you to believe that they are some kind of inhuman gangsters” (Valdez 1.11.207-213). Not only did the press/prosecution vilify their trends, but relied on racist fearmongering to portray these pachuco kids as hardened criminals. This is seen when the press/prosecution says, “We are dealing with a threat and danger to our children, our families, our homes… What nefarious schemes can they be hatching in their twisted minds? Rape, drugs, assault, more violence? Who shall be their next innocent victim in some dark alley way, on some lonely street? You? You? Your loved ones? No!” (Valdez 1.11.173-183). The press/prosecution then proceeds to say Henry and his “Latin juvenile cohorts” are “criminals, and they must be stopped” (Valdez 1.11.184-185).
This intensive fear mongering pins the American culture against minorities, Hispanics in this case, seeing them as threats to be feared. The consequence is a tension that can break out into violence because, as history has proven time and time again, humans have an innate desire to destroy what they fear. From the primordial to the present-age, fear and ignorance have been the pillars of prejudice, even if such fears are unfounded. As Harper Lee once wrote, “ People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for,” (92). U.S. history is littered with examples of the dominant Caucasian culture demonizing minorities and making them out to be criminals, from using marijuana to associate Mexican culture with violence (Booth 289) to forcing Japanese-Americans into internment camps in World War II. This sort of anti-minority propaganda doesn’t only shape the perspectives of caucasians towards minorities, but can shape how minority cultures view themselves.
This idea of falsely projecting criminal intent ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, as explained by researcher Callie H. Burt. In an article titled, “Racial Discrimination, Racial Socialization, and Crime: Understanding Mechanisms of Resilience,” she observed, “ The evidence is clear and moving to the mainstream: interpersonal racial discrimination—the blatant, subtle and covert actions, verbal messages, or signals that are supported by racism and malign mistreat or otherwise harm racial minorities—is a risk factor for street crime and, therefore, plays a role in explaining racial disparities in offending [criminals]” (Burt 414). The short explanation is that when we treat people like they will be criminals, they end up being criminals. Today, this is felt mainly in impoverished black and Latinx communities, where many young men are, to put it bluntly, treated as problems before they’re treated as people. This mistreatment of minorities goes so far as to seep into their entertainment, particularly in their choice of musical genre: Hip-Hop. In his book Live From Death Row, American convict Mumia Abu Jamal wrote about the correlation between Hip-Hop and minority treatment in American society, saying,
For the music arises from a generation that feels, with some justice, that they have been betrayed by those who came before them, that they are at best tolerated in schools, feared on the streets, and almost inevitably destined for the hell holes of prison. They grew up hungry, hated, and unloved, and this is the psychic fuel that generates the anger that seems endemic in much of the music and poetry (142).
It is evident that by claiming that minorities are more prone to crime, they become more prone to crime. That in itself is, of course, a generalization, but the trend is sufficiently observable among the larger population of minorities. Ideas of struggles and violence are so ingrained in the cultures of minorities that it finds its way into their music, which helps influence a new generation of minority children to embody those same ideas. This isn’t because minorities are genetically predisposed to criminality, but rather because the dominant culture has decided they are foreign and therefore are criminals. Our society is caught in a real-world game of cops and robbers, with white culture assigning the latter role to non-white culture.
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While less blatantly systemic today, the problem of racial discrimination is no less prevalent today. In an article titled, “On the Prevalence of Racial Discrimination in the United States,” researcher Randy Lee found, “43.50% of all individuals in the Pew Research Center dataset reported experiencing discrimination from time to time or regularly” (6). He also goes on to state, “In our most conservative estimates, we find 63.10% of minorities experience racial discrimination compared to 29.61% of Whites” (6). This is still a problem that affects large portions of communities. While some might argue that discrimination is an unavoidable part of society and there will always be the proverbial ignorant person somewhere, the tendrils of racial discrimination reach much too far to be attributed to a few racist people, and the lasting effect on our culture is far too devastating for us, as a society, to get complacent.
Others might say that this treatment is to be blamed on minorities, rather than the dominant culture, for playing into these roles. But, as aforementioned, minority communities are influenced by how they’re viewed in society. Valdez shows this in Zoot Suit through interactions with the Pachuco and Henry. In the play, the Pachuco very clearly symbolizes Henry’s inner cynicism. He is the embodiment of what society views Henry as. Everything from the darker suit he wears to his dialect to his actions throughout the play suggest that his is menacing, cynical, and resigned to being what white America says he should be. This resignation not only applies to him, but to Henry and all other people of Mexican descent, as exemplified when he says to Henry, “What the hell are they going to do, ese? They just sent you to prison for life. Once a Mexican goes in, he never comes out” (Valdez 1.11.246-246). The Pachuco is society’s projection of the threatening Chicano, and that image is clearly a part of Henry. Henry tries to fight his influence throughout the play, but slowly succumbs to it as he sees how flawed and broken the system is after he’s sent to prison. In one of the play’s endings, he does fulfill this image, having gone back to prison, getting addicted to drugs, and ultimately dying. The other endings, though, see Henry breaking the mold and becoming either a patriot or a family man. Valdez does this to show that, while we are truly influenced by society’s perception of us, we are not condemned to it. Individually, we have the choice to break out of that stereotype that is given to us by the dominant culture. This is harder to do holistically, as a culture, because members of our communities that choose to succumb to that image will always be more appealing to our society’s media than those that choose to rise above that image.
Valdez’s play profoundly exemplifies how discrimination makes the dominant society view minorities as criminal and nefarious, and how that makes minorities see themselves that way. By using the trial as a reflection of society and then using Henry and the Pachuco as a reflection of the struggle of minority introspection, he shows how the detriment caused by racial injustice and discrimination. He highlights a fundamental problem of American society that is still prevalent nearly 80 years after the play’s setting and effects everyone in that society, showing that prejudice is a beast with the capacity to consume everyone involved.
- Abu-Jamal, Mumia. Live from Death Row. HarperCollins Publishers, 1996
- Booth, Martin. Cannabis: A History. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2004
- Burt, Callie H., et al. “Racial Discrimination, Racial Socialization, and Crime: Understanding Mechanisms of Resilience.” Social Problems, vol. 64, no. 3, 2017.
- Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960
- Lee, Randy T., et al. “On the Prevalence of Racial Discrimination in the United States.” PLoS ONE, vol. 14, no. 01, 2019
- Matthew, D. C. “Racial Injustice, Racial Discrimination, and Racism: How Are They Related?” Social Theory & Practice, vol. 43, no. 4, 2017
- Valdez, Luis. Zoot Suit. Arte Publico Pr., 1979
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