the racist history of tipping

April 12, 2018
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By Katie Mitchell* / WearYourVoice Mag, AFROPUNK contributor

Tipping can be a great way to earn extra income. As you may often see on social media, people tip others for providing useful information, unique content, or when they need a little extra help financially. But living completely off tips like many waiters are forced to do comes from a system that has been in the United States for over 100 years, and it’s actually a really problematic practice based on its history. The roots of the tipping system are racist, and low-wage workers who rely on tips tend to be disproportionately women and people of color today.

According to Saru Jayaraman, writing for  University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center, the American tipping system was used widely to keep freed slaves poor. According to Jayaraman’s research, many white employers resented having to pay former slaves, and tipping was a legal way around providing actual wages. Jayaraman has written a book that further outlines what goes on in American restaurants.

When the tipping system first began to take hold in the United States, it was almost exclusively used for Black people. John Speed, a journalist during this time, wrote, “Negroes take tips of course; one expects that of them — it is a token of their inferiority.” This practice kept Black people poor, and provided white people with cheap labor.

Aaron Ross Coleman, a New York University business and economic reporting Masters student tells Wear Your Voice, “The tipping system as constructed doesn’t benefit customers or employees. Patrons of restaurants regularly have to pay more money than advertised for their food because of gratuity. And waitresses and waiters often engage in performative and sometimes taxing emotional labor just to make a decent wage. And all of this is happening so employers don’t have to pay a living wage. If fast food restaurants and grocery stores can manage to pay the minimum wage, casual restaurants can too.”

He continues, “In a capitalistic society, it’s easy to vote with your dollar. If you’re aware of a restaurant that provides steady wages instead of making employees rely on tips, support them and other restaurants may follow suit.”

While the tipping system isn’t restricted to only Black people today, Black people often receive fewer tips than their white counterparts, contributing to income disparities even among low-wage workers. According to a 2014 Wayne State University and Cornell University study, African-American waiters are consistently tipped less than white waiters for the same quality of work. Michael Lynn, the co-author of the study, told MarketWatch, “If you like someone more, you tip them more, and the color of their skin influences how much you like them.”

The implicit bias that is hurting Black servers’ wages isn’t only coming from white customers, though. The research team also stated, “Our results indicate that both white and Black restaurant customers discriminate against Black servers by tipping them less than their white co-workers.” As a restaurant patron, you can make sure you’re not allowing your implicit bias to perpetuate the tipping gap between Black and white servers.

Problems associated with tipping are seen throughout the country. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 an hour. Only seven states pay tipped workers the same minimum wage as other employees. And even though the federal minimum wage has increased over the years, the tipped minimum wage has remained the same since the 1990s, meaning tipped workers’ income doesn’t go as far as it used to. And women and people are color are bearing the burden of the current tipping system. According to a report by The Restaurant Opportunities Center United, 66 percent of tipped workers are women and nearly 46 percent of people of color who are servers live in poverty.

You might be wondering if the restaurant industry would collapse without the tipping system, but restaurant managers who have replaced tipping in their restaurants with steady wages report better customer service, job satisfaction, and food. Everyone benefits from waiters receiving a regular wage.

This post is in partnership with WearYourVoice Mag

*Katie is a public health professional and freelance writer for hire. Her public health focus is health communication and programming; while, her writing focuses on race, social justice, and (of course) public health. She enjoys reading, devouring chocolate chip cookies, and pretending to be from Atlanta.