Race Money Now + Beyond

The origins of tipping at American restaurants are rooted in racism

In the United States, it’s a common custom within the service and hospitality industry to tip waged workers. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers in the US is $2.13, compared to the main federal minimum wage which is $7.25, and has remained just short of two dollars for many decades.

People have been critical of the exploitative practice of tipping for years. The critiques mostly surround corporations utilization of tipping to legally get away with paying their workers an unlivable wageEssentially, customers are responsible for paying restaurant worker’s wages through tips.

And although tipping is optional, many Americans view not tipping service workers as rude or unethical due to their low wages. The other spectrum of people’s critiques simply highlights how grossly low and unethical paying individuals $2.13 is.

Restaurant workers are more likely to live below the poverty line than the general population, and that likelihood increases depending on things like race and gender. Activists have been trying to raise the minimum wage for hourly workers for decades. The Raise the Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, would additionally raise the minimum wage for tipped workers for the first time in almost three decades.

American capitalism makes our economy inherently unethical and predatory.

The stagnation of wages for tipped workers is itself abhorrent and a clear illustration of how predatory capitalism is on lower-income and working-class people. Workers’ wages being reliant upon (optional) tips from customers, rather than a guaranteed right from million or billion-dollar corporations is unethical. However, upon an even deeper examination into the custom of tipping in the US, its history is more corrupt than most know. 

Tipping actually originated in “medieval times as a master-serf custom wherein a servant would receive extra money for having performed superbly well,” Rachel E. Greenspan explains in an article for TIME. In the mid-1800s, wealthy Americans discovered the concept of tipping after travels to Europe and brought the custom to the states in order to seem dignified and well-traveled. 

The custom stuck in the Post Reconstruction Era, after slavery “ended,” as a way to opt-out of paying Black people who were now looking for work. Restaurants would pay Black workers little to nothing and forced them to rely on (optional) tips from white clientele, which “entrenched a unique and often racialized class structure in service jobs, in which [Black] workers must please both customer and employer to earn anything at all,” says Dr William J. Barber II in an article for Politico. Thus, legally continuing the practice of slavery but in a re-imagined way.

The custom was nationally unpopular for a while and only a custom done in the South because many people felt forcing customers to tip was condescending and classist. People thought it cruel to suggest poor people should give an additional amount of money on top of their bill. As a result, some states even made laws against the practice.

Additionally, tipping was thought to be a concept reserved only for Black workers, whereas white workers deserved to be fairly paid for their work. However, as Black people began moving north for economic opportunity and to escape segregationist laws, the custom of tipping followed, becoming the national standard within the US’s restaurant industry.

It’s imperative to know the history behind malpractices deemed as “normal.”

Fast forward to today, conversations (or arguments) surrounding the ethics of tipping at American restaurants occur often on social media between wait staff and restaurant workers and restaurant-goers. I’ve always found these discussions to be futile because the ethics of greedy corporations are never questioned, which in turn produces no real, systemic change for waged workers.

Rev. Dr William J. Barber II further states in his article, “We may live in a very different society from 150 years ago, but the subminimum tipped wage still exacerbates the inequalities passed down from that time.”

American capitalism makes our economy inherently unethical and predatory. So, rather than people regularly arguing amongst each other on whether working-class people are responsible for paying the wages of other working-class people, we should be collectively challenging our government to pay us livable wages.

Although the history of tipping in America is racist, raising the federal minimum wage benefits all working-class people regardless of race. Thankfully, an organization of restaurant industry leaders called Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE) was founded in 2019 to champion living wages, basic benefits, and fair promotion policies for waged workers in the restaurant industry.

In addition, wages for hourly workers reliant on tips are being raised in isolated policies across the states like in Michigan or Washington DC. However, there obviously needs to be a national standard that correlates with the cost of living in America.

With racism being examined so closely this year, it’s imperative to know the history behind malpractices deemed as “normal.” And instead, challenge or dismantle those norms to begin building an economy that equally serves all.

Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!

Politics The World

Our government representatives are sleeping on the job – and it’s putting women in danger

As a full-time college student with a fellowship and a part-time job, my days and nights are filled to the brim with work. I go to bed extremely late and wake up as early as possible. The only way I survive my long and arduous days are with quick naps in the middle of the day. Being a U.S. representative, however, is much different. I’m sure their lives are filled with much more time consuming and stressful work, and it seems that they are determined to get their naps just like the rest of us. There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact, I encourage it so they can be more level headed when making decisions that will affect our everyday lives. I definitely know my naps help me in that way.

But I nap at home, not at work.

According to Politico, members of the Black Caucus have recently submitted a letter to the ethics committee to investigate the legality of Congress members sleeping in their offices.

Some members like Paul Ryan argue that this act of sleeping in their offices shows that they are hardworking and dedicated, but I know if I was found sleeping at my job it would not be seen as dedicated. I’d be fired for laziness, stealing from the company, and for the sheer audacity of my actions. Not only are these representatives stealing taxpayer dollars by getting free housing and amenities, but it’s a suspicious act altogether. A room full of politicians with no supervision will never give me an assured feeling.

CNN brought up another very real and terrifying issue that is directly affecting victims of sexual assault. With over 50 people reporting instances of sexual violence on capitol hill, nothing is scarier than having to stay late in the office to actually do work, with your abuser sleeping right next door. How are you supposed to stay concentrated on all you have to do with a very real threat looming over your head? If we aren’t going to actually take action and seek justice for victims, the least our government can do is ensure these victims have a safe work environment.

Be extra careful of the male lawmakers who sleep in their offices — they can be trouble. Avoid finding yourself alone with a congressman or senator in elevators, late-night meetings or events where alcohol is flowing. And think twice before speaking out about sexual harassment from a boss — it could cost you your career.”

These were the rules that female representatives, staff, and interns would follow to keep themselves safe, according to the previously cited CNN article. At this point, it’s no longer mind blowing that even within our own government women can’t feel safe. We aren’t safe in our own beds, our schools, the workplace, and even within our government. From this one quote, it’s clear that these representatives are doing more than just “working and sleeping” in their offices. If they can’t be trusted around another human and complying with the laws regarding persons how can we trust them with making new laws. We can’t, we literally cannot and the congressional black caucus was right in questioning them and calling for an investigation.

If the people in power can’t act like adults and follow the same rules as everyone else, why should they be allowed to make them?