Today, those zoot suits are synonymous with Jazz Age and World War II-era cool. But back then, they were seen as the wardrobe of black and Mexican-American delinquents and gang members. Zoot suiters' opponents — and there were lots — saw them as harbingers of a moral decline. In his book, Alvarez cites a 1943 Washington Post article that was typical of the way the trend was covered in big-city newspapers. The language in it sounds an awful lot like the speech Officer Vinson would give those Los Angeles parents decades later on the dangers posed by saggers.
Since the 1980s, the revisionist narrative continues, experts have determined that powder and crack show more pharmacological “similarities than differences,” in the Times ’s words, and that crack is no more damaging to fetuses than alcohol. The belief that crack was an inner-city scourge was thus a racist illusion, and the sentencing structure to quell it a racist assault. Or, as . District Judge Clyde Cahill put it, in what one hopes is not a representative sample of the federal judicial temperament: “Legislators’ unconscious racial aversion towards blacks, sparked by unsubstantiated reports of the effects of crack, reactionary media prodding, and an agitated constituency, motivated the legislators . . to produce a dual system of punishment.”