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Do African Americans tip less?

It's a scenario many a restaurant host faces every day.  Servers have developed a code word for them, and when they walk into the restaurant, none of the waiters wants them seated in their sections. According to a recent Cornell University study, some servers call them Canadians, while others refer to them as moolies or cousins.

The code words vary, but they all mean the same thing: African-American diners. And servers don't want them for one reason—they're convinced they'll be tipped less than 15%.

And plenty of them are convinced. Another recent survey, "Racial Differences in Restaurant Tipping," involved interviews with 99 servers in Maryland and Florida and revealed that 75% of them believed that blacks routinely undertipped. The race of the servers themselves, moreover, had no bearing on the responses.

The issue of whether minority diners do, statistically or just anecdotally, tip less than their Caucasian counterparts is a taboo subject if the industry ever had one. As Gerry Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance, has written, "Consumers' tipping behavior is an issue that is fraught with cultural misunderstanding, personal bias, inconsistent norms, and more than its share of politics. As a result, tipping is one of the most controversial subjects being discussed in the hospitality industry today."

But, after years of widespread silence on the issue, at least the discussions are happening. Following the publication of investigative research on the issue, notably the extensive work of Cornell professor Michael Lynn and including the piece "Minority Report," published in this magazine two years ago, dialogue on minority tipping has become commonplace. After all, the issue affects most all full-service restaurants in one way or another. Low tipping can lead to higher turnover as servers seek their fortunes elsewhere. It's been shown to lead to poor service, which can damage repeat business. It can even influence a chain's decision on whether or not to build a unit in a predominantly minority area.

Once cooler heads set the tone for the discussion, most felt the root of the issue wasn't so much race, but education. Tipping is, after all, learned behavior. And if the industry were to collectively educate people of all colors on what tipping norms were, and precisely how reliant much of the industry was on their tips, it would represent the first step in a difficult march, many believed.

But since then, there's been plenty of talking, and not much else.

Whether their unwillingness to step forward comes from a lack of financial resources or anxiety about attaching one's name to a sticky issue, it appears no one—not the National Restaurant Association, not the MFHA, nor the major restaurant chains—has taken that first step toward trying to formally educate the dining public.

The only thing that's different from two years ago is that we have more data to support our original conclusions [that blacks and whites tip differently]," says Lynn, associate professor of consumer behavior at Cornell, and perhaps the country's foremost authority on tipping.

Those conclusions said that the reasons minorities seem to tip less are sociological, not racial: that many blacks were simply unaware that 15%-20% was the norm for good restaurant service. In a study published earlier this year, Lynn revealed that, on average, blacks tip 20% less than whites (13% versus 16.5%), and that one-third of blacks polled know the tipping range in the U.S. is 15%-20%, compared to two-thirds of whites. (The study also found that nearly a third of whites fail to tip 15%, as well.)

Based on the study's findings, most would agree that it's simply a matter of educating people. But who's to do the educating? Many naturally looked to the National Restaurant Association; after all, the NRA launched a mega-campaign not long ago to improve the profile of industry jobs, an effort many lauded. But not this time. "We don't really have anything more to add on the topic," said a spokesperson.

Then how about the MFHA, a think-tank geared to promoting diversity in the industry? The organization confronted the issue at a conference over two years ago, and again this summer, which saw many attendees questioning Lynn's findings, and denying the problem exists.

Not much to report there, either. While Fernandez says the MFHA is poised to launch an initiative on minorities and tipping in the "very near future," he mentions essentially going it alone. "We didn't find anybody really willing to move forward on the issue," he says. "What company wants to stick their head out?"

Outback, for one, did just that, before appearing to yank its head back in. At the end of a panel discussion at the 2002 conference, Outback diversity director Joseph Jackson pledged $10,000 to study minority tipping. Shortly thereafter, company officials appeared to distance themselves from the issue, apparently fearing a backlash from black customers. (Outback did not return several calls for this feature, though an MFHA spokesperson said the chain did follow through on the pledge.)

So the issue of minority tipping, and the problems it wreaks throughout the industry, continues to run unimpeded. Lynn, for one, isn't surprised by the inactivity. "No one will put up the money needed to address the problem because they don't want their name attached to it, and they don't want to be seen as trying to educate their customers," he says. "Plus, the chains don't want to do the work that will benefit their competition."

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