Be White – You Can’t Afford Not To

vintage photo policeman sitting at lunch counter

Retro Police Profiling

“You can usually spot a wrong kid just by the way he looks,” the cop on the beat remarks over a cup of coffee to the counterman in this 1958 ad from  American Institute of Men’s and Boy’s Wear.

A cop, a cup of Joe and careless profiling. Sounds awfully familiar.

“Sure its unfair, but it’s a fact: people today judge a youngster by appearance,” the copy in the ad warns. “And once they’ve tabbed a boy, its tough to change their minds about him, their attitude toward him. Could the way he looks give the wrong impressionism?”

Vintage ad policeman sitting at lunch counter

Vintage Ad American Institute of Men’s and Boys Wear 1958

This ad, part of a series of advertisements  from the American Institute of Men’s and Boy’s Wear that ran 60 years ago, was not a heads up about racial profiling but a stern warning aimed in part at discouraging teens from wearing jeans and leather jackets lest they be pegged as threatening juvenile delinquents just as the gang of  leather clad youths pictured  in the background hunched around the juke box listening to rock and roll are assumed to be. Certainly not the clientele one wants in their wholesome coffee shop. A smart pair of crisp chinos and cardigan sweater would make all the difference.

That is, if you were white. Which they assumed you were.


Vintage ad American Institute of Mens and Boys Wear 1957 illustration business man in office

Vintage ad American Institute of Men’s and Boy’s Wear 1957

The way you look has much to do with the way that people look at you.

Clothes may make the man, but as we have seen time and again skin color makes a man more vulnerable.

Now we have learned “Sitting in Starbucks while Black” has joined “Driving while Black” as  things African Americans can’t do safely without fear of police arrest or violence.

How about some racial profiling to go along with that blonde espresso?

Vintage ad American Institute of Men's and Boy's Wear 1957 Fashion Illustration

Vintage ad American Institute of Men’s and Boy’s Wear 1957

“Wherever you go…Whatever you do…Whether you know it or not…You’re Being Watched!”

The headline from another in that series of ads  takes on a very different tone read through the racial lens of today. The most recent example of white fear and racial profiling was at a Philadelphia Starbucks when the manager  called the cops on two African American men who were doing nothing more sinister than “attempting to use the bathroom while Black.”

These vintage ads all ended with the tag line “Dress Right –you can’t afford not to” which might more appropriately read today,  “Be White – You can’t afford not to.” Unwarranted calls to police result in harassment, unfair prosecution and even death of people of color.

Along with Starbucks, Americans have a  latte to learn.


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Copyright (©) 20018 Sally Edelstein Envisioning the American Dream All Rights Reserved




  1. I am grateful my children did not grow up in the environment reflected in the ad campaign. I notice that the boys behind the cop are presumed white “The Wild One” juvenile delinquents — not kids of color. It is disturbing, at least as far as this 1957 portrayal is concerned, that African Americans of all ages were simply made invisible when the subject was dressing for business success or fruitful pleasure. More disturbing is how, despite today’s advertising visibly leveling the playing field (arguably), ethnic division seems to be increasing.


  2. Hello. Wow! This post makes me feel even more paranoid than ever before. Black people can’t be white because they’re NOT white. 😦 (Racism is the worst invention ever!) The whole thing about dressing a certain way sounds like garden variety advertisement for this “American Institute of Men’s and Boy’s Wear”. I’ll admit that we all should dress nice and NOT look like a bum in public. (My apologies to real bums.) But you can’t change you skin color.

    Thanks for the moderation.


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