African Americans are Bad Tippers, Aren't They?

The tipping system in restaurants reinforces racism

Posted Dec 03, 2013

How much do you tip?

The answer seems to depend upon race and circumstances.

Anecdotal evidence and social science research support the widespread belief that in restaurants white Americans customarily leave 15 percent of the bill while African Americans typically leave a flat amount no matter what the bill comes to, which often amounts to less than 15 percent. These figures are independent of class and hold true whether the server is white or black.

At the same time, researcher Michael Lynn of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University finds that there is no difference in the size of the tip given by African Americans when it comes to services they encounter less frequently, such as maids, skycaps, bellhops, masseuses, and ushers. As flat tippers, African Americans are generally more generous than whites.

There are a number of reasons offered for this disparity in tipping. One that strikes me as likely, although perhaps not the only one, is that blacks tend to be more generous where blacks historically held jobs.

Whatever the explanation, the effect in restaurants amounts to structural racism. It isn’t that individual servers are personally racist but that the cultural dynamic leads to racial discrimination. It goes like this: Hoping for a good tip, waiters treat white patrons properly; expecting poor tips, waiters provide black patrons with less solicitation, even though some black patrons are just as likely to be more generous than the average white customer. There is now a gap between how white and black patrons are treated, causing blacks to feel mistreated, which in turns leads them to treat waiters less courteously. There is now a vicious loop that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This unfortunate set of circumstances is bolstered by a wage system that pays waiters less than they deserve to begin with. In New York, for example, waiters make less than minimum wage and therefore rely upon generous tipping in order to make a decent living. Naturally waiters look less kindly upon those who, as a group, keep their incomes below a living wage.

Studies show that as most waiters in the U.S. prefer the tipping system to flat wages, especially if they work in restaurants where tabs are high and the clientele isn’t African American. There is no good reason, as far as I can see, for waiters to be dependent upon the mood or race of their customers than any other service provider. In Europe, waiting is an honored profession and it should be here, too.

But realistically this isn’t going to happen. The system is deeply entrenched and the restaurant industry as a whole benefits from tipping rather than fair wages. The next best thing is education on two fronts: One is by making the issue public amongst restaurant staff by management and reinforcing the idea that everyone must be treated fairly; second, the black community needs to informed that waiters’ wages are meager and they depend upon the goodwill of their customers in order to get by.

For the perspective of a black former waiter see: