Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 24, 2020

Tipping in the U.S. is a civil rights issue

By JEAN JIANG | April 28, 2020

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IWONA KELLIE / CC BY 2.0 Jiang argues that the U.S. tipping system exacerbates racial inequality.

“Oh, I forgot to add a tip!” I said, just after paying my bill for a drink with some friends on a cold January night in Baltimore.

“Jean, this is not Europe; you should go see the waiter at once,” one of my friends snapped back. “Not tipping is really serious in America.”

As a French exchange student coming to the U.S., I was surprised by the American tipping system. Before coming to Baltimore, I already knew that tipping is mandatory in most restaurants in the U.S. However, since the beginning of my exchange program in January, I began to discover that tipping isn’t only confined to the restaurant industry. Hairdressers, taxi drivers and bartenders all expect a tip for the service they provide. 

Of course, tipping also exists in Europe, especially in restaurants and bars. However, we don’t add an additional fee to our bill automatically; tipping is considered as a sign of gratitude for great service. In the U.S., tipping is a systematic practice. In fact, it is often the backbone of a waiter’s income. The federal minimum wage for entry-level service jobs receiving at least $30 in tips per month is only $2.13 per hour.

The Guardian shared the account of a former full-time waitress who was fired for complaining on Reddit about a customer who refused to tip. According to the waitress, her weekly wage was not even enough to pay half of her monthly bills, and therefore tips became a core part of her weekly income. Not only does the tipping system entail appalling treatment of entry-level service jobs, it more importantly enables racial and gender inequality to prevail in American society.

Tipping is commonly considered to be a national tradition deeply rooted in American culture. It is seen as a colorblind issue, void of any racial underpinning or implications. Yet, the American tipping system is a legacy of slavery. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. However, jobs which were available for formerly enslaved workers were limited. As a result, many African-American workers were employed in menial jobs as servants, waiters or barbers. 

At that time, tipping was a phenomenon that hadn’t been democratized yet in America. Nonetheless, the white ruling class saw the tipping system as a way to perpetuate the racial hierarchy that slavery represented. They generalized the practice of tipping in the U.S. in order to grant African-American workers a low wage, and they expected customers to subsidize the rest of the salary through tips. Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley told TIME entry-level service “industries demanded the right to basically continue slavery with $0 wage and tip.”

Tipping practices are part of a racialized class structure that alludes to the image of a reward given by a paternalist person to a more “inferior” worker of a service. The act of tipping is a condescending action which aims to enhance the dominating relationship between the customer and the provider of service. That the American tipping system can be traced back to slavery shows how it is a social organization aimed at bolstering the racial domination of the white ruling class over African Americans, even after the abolition of slavery. 

Today, the tipping system still discriminates against African-American workers and enhances racial inequality in the U.S. The federal minimum wage for entry-level service jobs ($2.13 per hour) is considerably lower than the average federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour). The practice of tipping becomes a civil right issue when it mainly penalizes women and African Americans, as they are more represented in entry-level service jobs where the salary depends heavily on tips. 

Although African Americans constitute only 13 percent of the American labor force, they account for 19 percent of food servers in the U.S., 38 percent of barbers and 28 percent of taxi drivers. Tips form an important part of the income these workers receive. As a result the American tipping system widens the already critical racial wealth gap. Women are more represented in entry-level service jobs as well: 66 percent of tipped workers are women. Thus, the practice of tipping is a manifestation of intersectionality as African-American women are doubly affected and oppressed by the tipping system. These women are forced to live on tips and sometimes compelled to tolerate inappropriate behavior from male customers.

The tipping system also harms African-American workers because of racial prejudice from customers, especially white customers. According to a study conducted by Ian Ayres of Yale Law School, African-American taxi drivers are tipped a third less than their white counterparts, and African-American servers are tipped four percent less than white servers by white customers. Consequently, the enduring tipping system in the U.S. is a civil right issue, as its very existence creates income disparities between black and white workers.

Because the U.S. tipping system allows customers to determine the income of workers, the tips that service workers receive can be dictated by conscious and unconscious prejudice. By maintaining the tipping system, restaurants and taxi companies tacitly discriminate against their African American employees on the basis of race, which is a direct violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Amid the current pandemic, African-American workers have been disproportionately affected. The shutdown of nonessential economic activities has taken a heavy toll on workers who live on tips, compounding their already precarious socioeconomic situations. As African-American workers are more represented in these service jobs, the pandemic only enhanced their suffering from this racialized tipping system.

All in all, the practice of tipping in the U.S. continues to reproduce the racial inequality that began with slavery. By jettisoning the tipping system, the U.S. could mend the income rift between African-American workers in entry-level service jobs and their white counterparts. 

Jean Jiang is a junior studying International Relations and Political Sciences from Paris, France. He is an exchange student from HEC Paris Business School in France.

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