America's obsession with tipping of course has racist roots

Tipping-as-wage is a weirdly American phenomenon.

Don't get me wrong, I have some friends in the restaurant industry who have done quite well for themselves thanks to the bizarre social expectations of gratuity. That's not to say there's no benefit to the incentivizing aspect of it, either. I remember my first trip to Paris, and suddenly understanding how people could sit outside on restaurant patios for hours on end, because the staff weren't constantly pestering them to order something else or flip the table. (Honestly, sometimes I appreciate you encouraging me to have another beer!)

But the gratuity is also a gross system that establishes some toxic power dynamics—essentially holding a worker's payment for ransom unless they acquiesce to the customer's every subjective demand.

It was no surprise to me, then, to learn that America's obsession with tipping ties back to racism. As Reverend Doctor William J. Barber II writes in Politico:

The practice [of tipping] spread throughout the country after the Civil War as U.S. employers, largely in the hospitality sector, looked for ways to avoid paying formerly enslaved workers.

One of the most notorious examples comes from the Pullman Company, which hired newly freed African American men as porters. Rather than paying them a real wage, Pullman provided the black porters with just a meager pittance, forcing them to rely on tips from their white clientele for most of their pay. 

Tipping further entrenched a unique and often racialized class structure in service jobs, in which workers must please both customer and employer to earn anything at all. A journalist quoted in Kerry Segrave's 2009 bookTipping: An American Social History of Gratuities, wrote in 1902 that he was embarrassed to offer a tip to a white man. "Negroes take tips, of course; one expects that of them—it is a token of their inferiority," he wrote. "Tips go with servility, and no man who is a voter in this country is in the least justified in being in service."

Barber also cites The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in America, a 1916 pamphlet by William Scott. Here's a larger quote from that piece that stood out to me:

The American democracy could not live in the face of a lie such as slavery presented, and it cannot live in the face of a lie such as tipping presents. The aim of American statesmanship should be to keep fresh and strong the original concepts of democracy and to beat back the efforts of base human qualities to override these concepts.

The relation of a man giving a tip and a man accepting it is as undemocratic as the relation of master and slave. A citizen in a republic ought to stand shoulder to shoulder with every other citizen, with no thought of cringing, without an assumption of superiority or an acknowledgment of inferiority. This is elementary preaching and yet the distance we have strayed from primary principles makes it necessary to prove the case against tipping.

The psychology of tipping may be stated more in detail in the following formula:

To one-quarter part of generosity add two parts of pride and one part of fear.

The larger thesis of Barber's article has to do with increasing the federal minimum wage—and how tipped workers have historically been left out of other minimum wage legislation, specifically because of this racist incentive.

The Racist History of Tipping [Reverend Doctor William J. Barber II / Politico]

Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons