The food service industry in the United States has set itself apart from other countries through its unspoken requirement of leaving a tip. Yet, the origin of this custom isn't only racist, but has a direct legacy from slavery.
Tipping was a custom that wealthy traveling Americans brought back from England but the practice was met with disgust and was seen as "despicable, un-democratic, and wholly un-American." But when former slaves began working at restaurants and railway companies such as the Pullman Car Company, owners didn't want to pay them and so they adopted tipping, leaving it up to patrons to determine what pay their server deserved. In 1902, John Speed wrote the following in a newspaper:
"I have never known any but negro servants. Negroes take tips, of course; one expects it of them–it is a token of their inferiority. But to give money to a white man was embarrassing to me. I felt defiled by his debasement and servility... no man who is a voter in this country... is in the least justified in being servile."
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Negro waiter." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1886-10.
By having a tipping policy, the owners were able to exploit the freed slaves by not paying them any wages. Unsurprisingly, these workers were rarely tipped and would often quite literally work for nothing. Post Civil War tipping policies created a situation for tipped wage workers that was very similar to the slavery that they had just escaped. Those who originally proposed tipping post Civil War believed that the workers were not worth the value of an actual wage. Pullman car porters formed a union -- one of the first led by black workers -- and organized themselves to demand a higher wage outside of the tips they were receiving, which they won. This left the practice of tipping only in the hospitality industry, including restaurants.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. "A waiter at the Galt House, Louisville, Kentucky" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1874.
Today, the racist origins of tipping have manifested themselves into continued racialized tipping practices. Minnesota has a proud history of one of the few "One Fair Wage" states where tipped and non-tipped workers earn the same minimum wage. But in 42 states, employers are permitted to pay tipped workers a subminimum wage, as low as $2.13/hour. In states with a tip penalty, tips act as a replacement for a reliable wage, rather than a supplement to it. The sentiment of tipping remains the same: it is the idea that an employer should not necessarily have to pay workers a full wage, but rather the workers should be paid directly by those they serve… if they earn it. Tips depend on the customer's mood, the shift, the weather, the day of the week. These “ifs” and “maybes” in tipped work create uncertainties and harvests inequalities for tipped workers. Studies have shown that in states with a tip penalty, where restaurant employees have to rely solely on their tips instead of using them to supplement a reliable wage, they face more sexual harassment -- both because they are at the customer's whim to receive the tips they need, and also because they face increased pressure from managers to objectify themselves. Studies have also shown that non-white restaurant workers make 56% less than their white coworkers.
Photograph by Frank Willming, Pullman Palace Car Company Collection, "[African American waiter serving three women in Pullman car: photoprint]" National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. 1935.
Throughout the course of the campaign for a $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis and St. Paul, how to handle tipping has been a huge question for employers, food service workers, politicians, and advocates alike. The Minnesota Restaurant Association is sponsoring a campaign for a lower minimum wage for tipped workers called "Pathway to $15." This campaign, driven by corporate lobbyists, proposes an untenable system that counts tips toward wages, saying they will make up the difference up to $15/hour if tips fall short. However, making up this difference is already the law in 42 states -- and it's not working. Department of Labor studies in these states show that employers fail to make up the difference 84% of the time. A tip is a tip, and should be treated like one; it should not be a substitute for employer-paid wages.
As this conversation heats up, some people -- most of them white -- have been extremely offended by the idea that tipping derives from slavery. But it's a historical fact. And before we move forward -- or backward -- we need to know where we've come from.
Jayaraman, Saru. Forked: A New Standard for American Dining. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Scott, William Rufus. The itching palm: A study of the habit of tipping in America. Penn Publishing Company, 1916.
Segrave, Kerry. Tipping: An American social history of gratuities. McFarland, 1998.