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The Tipping Divide

A new study finds many waiters and waitresses feel that black Americans generally tip less than restaurant diners who are white. The study, by a researcher at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, found that blacks tip on average 20 percent less than whites. In addition, restaurant workers of all races dislike waiting on black people because they assume the tips will be less no matter how good the service. NPR's Juan Williams reports.

The study found that 63 percent of blacks and 30 percent of whites didn't understand that the standard restaurant tip in the United States is 15 to 20 percent. The difference between how blacks and whites view tipping has serious ramifications for restaurants, including lawsuits and lost profits, Williams reports.

"The average tip from a black customer is about 13 percent of the bill. The average tip from a white customer is about 16.5 percent of the bill," says Dr. Michael Lynn, the study's author.

In some cases the difference in tipping may be the result of poor service, but blacks interviewed in one of Lynn's studies rated the service slightly higher yet still tipped less than whites, he says.

Jerry Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Food Alliance, which represents food servers and restaurateurs, says the expectations of a lower tip from blacks can often lead to poor service.

"If a [waiter] says, 'I don't want to wait on that table because they're black or they're Hispanic, then they tend to give less service and it's a self-fulfilling prophecy," Fernandez explains.

He says cultural elements -- blacks have avoided sit-down restaurants in favor of take out or self-service eateries -- institutionalized racism that exists in the restaurant industry and education about tipping are all behind the discrepancy. "How do people learn about tipping? If you don't go, you don't know."

Lynn suggests that the American restaurant industry begin a campaign to inform people about the basics of leaving a tip. He urges the use of advertisements, educational pamphlets, and even putting tipping information on menus. And Lynn suggests that restaurants could introduce a game in which dining parties would have to tip at least 15 percent in order to be eligible to win a contest.

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Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.