Why We Tip: Survey Shows Racial Divide

Black diners are more likely to link the gratuity to good service, research by The Root reveals.

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"Blacks may tip and reward for good service because they're so accustomed to poor service," says Rabow, who is white. " 'Here I am, a poor black man, but I made it in the world. I made it by hard work, being polite, keeping my nose clean. Here's this poor person, the server, who isn't being polite ... I'm not going to teach him anything by rewarding poor service.' "

On the other hand, white people are more likely to receive good service and are socialized to expect it. Even when they receive poor service, their providing a tip is often like a form of charity, Rabow says. "Charity and service can be a big motivator of people of privilege, either because of skin color or because of wealth or education. You want to be charitable to those you see as lesser," Rabow says.

White respondents to The Root's survey were indeed more likely to emphasize the lowly pay of most waitstaff as motivation for their tipping, even if service was poor. The purpose of a tip is "hopefully to encourage better service, but most servers are working very hard on a small wage and I see it as part of the cost of the meal," wrote a white respondent.

"Ideally, tips would encourage stellar service," wrote another, "but it is unreasonable not to leave at least 15 percent, given that most of a waiter's income comes from tips. For most, the hourly base wage is $2 to $4."

Black respondents to the survey, while not unsympathetic to the plight of underpaid waiters and waitresses, often spoke of tipping as a way to show appreciation and respect for quality service. In response to the question, "Why do you tip?" answers by blacks included the following:

"To show your appreciation for good service and a great dining experience."

"To express how much [I] appreciate the waitstaff's treatment of me and my family while we are at the establishment."

"I tip 25 percent to reward service that is above and beyond, 20 percent to encourage the wait service to continue its good service or only 10 percent if the service was lacking."

A bigger issue may be the eating public's overall lack of knowledge about how much to tip and how to calculate tip amounts, says Bjorn Hanson, dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University.

Forty-three percent of respondents to The Root's survey said that they usually tipped 20 to 25 percent of the total bill, with 57 percent of whites and 40 percent of blacks saying that they did so. A greater percentage of blacks (44 percent) than whites (34 percent) said that they usually tipped anywhere from 15 to 19 percent of the total bill.