Study Shows Blacks Tip Less—But They May Have Good Reason

Jane Engle, Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2006

“That waitress sized us up in two seconds. We’re black, and black people don’t tip,” says Anthony, a character complaining about restaurant service in a scene from “Crash,” winner of this year’s best-picture Oscar.

That’s not just Hollywood talking, a Cornell University associate professor says: Research indicates that African Americans, on average, leave smaller tips for servers than whites do and that they’re more likely to leave nothing.

Professor Michael Lynn’s latest report on this topic, “Race Differences in Tipping: Questions and Answers for the Restaurant Industry,” issued in January, cites more than 12 studies by himself and others, most of them done since 2002.

Discriminatory service may be a factor, but there appear to be many others.

Poor tips, Lynn says, may contribute to black diners getting poorer service and to companies’ reluctance to open restaurants in predominantly black communities, not to mention angering servers and customers alike. And it fuels yet another debate about tipping, always a hot-button topic for travelers.

Lynn doesn’t discount the role of anti-black bias in any of these problems. But he mainly sees this cycle at work:

Expecting skimpy gratuities, waiters resist serving African Americans, or they provide poorer service, which discourages blacks from patronizing table-service restaurants. Low tips also make it hard for restaurants in black neighborhoods to attract and retain staff, causing turnover and decreasing profits.

Six years after Lynn, a respected expert on tipping at Cornell’s Center for Hospitality Research in Ithaca, N.Y., began to study the racial gap in gratuities, the topic remains taboo, he says.

“It’s a problem the industry knows about,” says Lynn, who is white. “But the big players with money are afraid to address the issue. They’re afraid of being labeled racist.”

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But even when black and white customers are in the same socioeconomic class or rate the quality of service equally, he says, several studies by himself and others found that they tip differently. Black diners average 10.9% to 14.7% of the bill, and white diners average 16.6% to 19.4%, depending on the study. The server’s race didn’t matter.

Black subjects are also more likely than whites to say they never tip servers (6% versus 2%, in one study) and to leave tips as flat-dollar amounts instead of percentages of the bill (50.7% versus 19.4%, in one study).

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A few tables away, Reneé Davis, a black graphic designer, said, “A lot of white guys try to impress the table [with a big tip]. I’m not interested in impressing the table.”

Contending that restaurateurs should pay more so servers don’t rely on gratuities, she said, “I have problems with 20% for a tip. I’m doing 15%.”

Fernandez sees other factors affecting tips too.

Some African Americans may be “extremely sensitive” about service glitches, he said, such as getting their food late, after other tables are served, or being seated in the back. Such actions, whatever their intent, may be perceived as racial slights.

“Remember the back of the bus?” he said.

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