The Racist History of Tipping 


Tipping is a norm in the U.S. But it hasn’t always been this way. Tipping was considered “un-American” and “undemocratic” when rich Americans began to adopt the practice in the mid-1800s. By the end of the Civil War, tipping had spread throughout the country. According to research by Saru Jayaraman and Teófilo Reyes at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the reason behind its popularity was inherently racist—and it goes all the way back to slavery.

If you eat at a restaurant in the U.S., you’re expected to tip. It’s the right thing to do.

But what you knew tipping has a racist past? It’s not just because black waiters are tipped less than their white coworkers. Or that the tipped minimum wage makes the poor poorer. It’s that the custom of tipping in America was racist from the very beginning—and it goes all the way back to slavery.

Tipping started among European aristocrats in the 17th century. Rich Americans adopted the practice in the mid-1800s, and it spread throughout the country after the Civil War. According to research by activist Saru Jayaraman and Teófilo Reyes at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, newly freed slaves flocked to major cities to find work. But they were only hired in what were considered “unskilled” positions, mostly in restaurants. Racist restaurant owners embraced tipping as a way to employ freed slaves without actually having to pay them any wages. And some customers were down with the new practice because they believed it was natural to tip their “inferiors.”

Racism and classism run deep. This attitude is summed up in this passage by a reporter in 1902:

I had never known any but Negro servants. Negroes takes tips, of course; one expects that of them—it is a token of their inferiority. But to give money to a white man was embarrassing to me.

By the late 1880s, black workers accounted for nearly half of the hospitality industry. In the 1920s, restaurants that were losing money because of Prohibition laws encouraged tipping, making it even more popular. Over time, tipping became the norm and, thanks to the powerful lobbying of the restaurant industry, in 1938, Congress passed America’s first minimum-wage law allowing states to set a lower wage for tipped workers.

In 1996, the then head of the National Restaurant Association Herman Cain—yes, that Herman Cain—convinced a Republican-led Congress to set a two-tiered wage system for tipped and non-tipped workers. The tipped minimum wage was set at $2.13 per hour. Today in 17 states, the legal minimum wage for tipped workers? Still only $2.13 per hour.

A century later, the inherent racism of tipping persists. Nonwhite restaurant workers take home 56% less than their white peers. And there’s a new vulnerable demographic who’s suffering—women. According to Jayaraman, 66% of the almost 6 million tipped workers in America are women. Europe, where this whole thing began, has long moved past tipping to pay restaurant workers a full wage. So maybe it’s time for America to change its tipping culture too.

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