Why We Tip: Survey Shows Racial Divide

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


When African Americans dine out, the service had better measure up if the server is expecting a good tip.

That’s among the findings of a recent poll by The Root on attitudes and habits regarding tipping. African-American respondents were much more likely than whites (30 percent vs. 15 percent) to say that one should tip as a “reward for good service.” They were less likely than whites to cite the low wages that waitstaff earn (33 percent vs 42 percent) as the reason they tip.

These findings were among a number of differences in tipping habits across cultural lines revealed in The Root‘s online survey. The 10-question survey generated a total of 842 responses between July 14 and July 19, 2011, including answers from 646 blacks and 121 whites.

The vast majority (89 percent) of all respondents indicated that they tipped “all the time,” with 11 percent responding “most of the time.” A majority (68 percent) said that they learned to tip from family and friends, as opposed to etiquette books or people who had worked as waitstaff.

But when it came to the purpose of tipping and whether there were ever reasons not to tip, clear differences could be found along racial lines. A large percentage (upwards of 40 percent) of both blacks and whites agreed that “rude,” “incompetent” or “horrible” service was an acceptable reason to stiff servers.

Whites, however, were more forgiving of transgressions by waiters and eateries, with 49 percent saying that they would “always tip” no matter how bad the food or service. Only 37 percent of blacks said that they felt the same way. A much larger percentage of blacks (50 percent) indicated that there would be no tip for waitstaff whom they regarded as rude or inept.

Are black patrons too demanding? Are white patrons pushovers?

Jerome Rabow, a professor of sociology who lectures on race and ethnic relations at UCLA and California State University, Northridge, says that the answers may be more complicated. Blacks may be justified in their greater propensity to value service over supplementing servers’ incomes, he says.

Based on his own experience waiting tables as a young man and the feedback he receives from his students who are waiters today, Rabow says that black people are often perceived as poor tippers. In turn, blacks often receive poor service, such as being ignored or overlooked, receiving food after diners who arrive later or being greeted brusquely by waitstaff, he says.