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Here’s the ugly racist history behind tipping — and how it still persists today

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On Saturday, writing for Politico, minister and civil rights activist Rev. Dr. William Barber applauded House Democrats’ plans to not only raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, but eliminate the much lower “tipped wage” of $2.13 an hour and require tipped workers to also be paid at least the minimum.

This is important, wrote Barber, because the roots of businesses forcing their workers to rely on tips for a proper wage is deeply rooted in America’s history of racial tension.

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“You might not think of tipping as a legacy of slavery, but it has a far more racialized history than most Americans realize,” wrote Barber. “Tipping originated in feudal Europe and was imported back to the United States by American travelers eager to seem sophisticated. The practice 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.”

A particularly egregious example, Barber wrote, was the Pullman Company, which manufactured railroad cars around the turn of the 20th century, and which hired African Americans newly freed from slavery as porters — but paid them virtually nothing and forced them to rely on tips from white customers.

“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,” wrote Barber. “A journalist quoted in Kerry Segrave’s 2009 book, Tipping: 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.'”

“Several states sought to end the practice in the early 1900s, often in recognition of its racist roots,” continued Barber. “But the restaurant industry fought back and was powerful enough to roll back local bans on tipping. And tipped workers — along with most others, as the act applied to industries that together made up only one-fifth of the labor force — were excluded from the first, limited federal minimum wage law passed in 1938.”

Eventually a tipped subminimum wage was created in the 1960s, noted Barber, but thanks to a bargain cut by the National Restaurant Association, it has been frozen at $2.13 since 1996. (That deal was cut by the association’s then-president Herman Cain, who went on to become a Republican presidential candidate and President Donald Trump’s failed pick for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.)

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It is worth noting that even today, the racial disparities caused by tipping persist. According to one study, black waitstaff receive less in tips than white waitstaff, which might be why when Washington, D.C. held a referendum on eliminating the tipped minimum wage, black neighborhoods overwhelmingly voted for it and white neighborhoods overwhelmingly against. (That referendum passed but was swiftly repealed by the city council.) Furthermore, 38 percent of black workers would benefit from the House Democrats’ new law, compared with 23 percent of white workers.

“With a Republican Senate and president, the Raise the Wage Act might not become national law in the immediate future,” concluded Barber. “But a vote by the House to end the subminimum tipped wage would send an unmistakable signal to the several states considering similar legislation: The days of these racist tiered wage systems are coming to an end.”

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