World War II prompted many Americans to join an ongoing debate about the meaning of "race." Some argued that the United States was fighting against Hitler's racial ideology. Others insisted that a "White" America was fighting a "grasping, cruel and insanely ambitious race," as the Los Angeles Examiner referred to the Japanese.
This debate was especially notable in Los Angeles, home to the nation's largest Japanese American and Mexican American communities and to a large and growing African American population.
In his book, "The Battle for Los Angeles: Racial Ideology and World War II" (New Mexico Press, $34.95), Kevin Leonard follows this verbal "battle for Los Angeles" immediately before, during and after the war.
Until late 1942, few people challenged the idea that race determined how a person thought and behaved. After Pearl Harbor, many of the city's leaders argued that all people of Japanese ancestry were racially Japanese and therefore loyal to Japan. This traditional racial ideology influenced the incarceration and removal of Japanese Americans from coastal areas.
The "Zoot-Suit Riots" of June 1943 forced many Los Angeles residents to question their beliefs about race. Some community leaders argued that the belief that race made some people prone to criminal behavior had led to the rioting, when White sailors, soldiers and civilians attacked young Mexican American and African American men.
Elected officials agreed that traditional racial ideology had hindered the U.S. war effort, and explicit statements of these beliefs about race virtually disappeared from Los Angeles newspapers. The disappearance of such statements, however, did not lead to the end of racial discrimination. As the war ended defenders of discrimination frequently claimed that their opponents were Communists.