By REV. DR. WILLIAM J. BARBER II
This week, the House of Representatives will have a chance to end a pernicious legacy of slavery. Lawmakers will vote on the Raise the Wage Act, which would boost the minimum wage across the country to $15 an hour by 2024. This would be a crucial step toward the first federal minimum wage increase in more than a decade.
A just-released Congressional Budget Office report finds that a $15 minimum wage would have tremendous benefits for low-wage workers of all races and ethnicities. Yet the stakes are particularly high for black workers. The share who would benefit from the Raise the Wage Act is far larger than the share of white workers who would benefit—38 percent compared with 23 percent.
There’s another provision in the legislation—eliminating the subminimum tipped wage—that corrects a wrong that goes much further back than the previous federal minimum wage increase. For workers regularly making more than $30 a month in tips, employers can currently pay as little as $2.13 an hour. That subminimum wage has been frozen at this level for decades. Should the Raise the Wage Act pass the House, it will mark the first time that either chamber of Congress has moved to eliminate the subminimum wage, which not only deepens economic inequalities but also happens to be a relic of slavery.
You might not think of tipping as a legacy of slavery, but it has a far more racialized history than most Americans realize. 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.
One of the most notorious examples comes from the Pullman Company, which hired newly freed African American men as porters. Rather than paying them a real wage, Pullman provided the black porters with just a meager pittance, forcing them to rely on tips from their white clientele for most of their pay.
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. 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.”
The immorality of paying an insufficient wage to workers, who then were forced to rely on tips, was acknowledged at the time. In his popular 1916 anti-tipping study, The Itching Palm, writer William Scott described tipping as an aristocratic custom that went against American ideals. “The relation of a man giving a tip and a man accepting it is as undemocratic as the relation of master and slave,” Scott wrote. “A citizen in a republic ought to stand shoulder to shoulder with every other citizen, with no thought of cringing, without an assumption of superiority or an acknowledgment of inferiority.”
Several states sought to end the practice in the early 1900s, often in recognition of its racist roots. 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.
It took until 1966 for advocates to win a base wage for tipped workers, and that amounted to only 50 percent of the minimum wage already guaranteed to other workers. Congress continued to raise the subminimum tipped wage until 1996, when Herman Cain, who headed the National Restaurant Association at the time, offered legislators a bargain: The industry would accept a small increase in the minimum wage as long as the tipped wage was frozen at $2.13 an hour.
Congress agreed to the deal, and the tipped minimum wage remains just $2.13 to this day. Employers are supposed to pay the difference if tips don’t bring workers to the full regular minimum wage. But too often that law is not enforced. When the Department of Labor conducted an unusual compliance sweep of 9,000 full-service restaurants between 2010 and 2012, they found that 84 percent had violated the subminimum wage system.
A century later, the industry lobby continues its fight to uphold this two-tiered pay system. Where social movements have gotten cities to pass minimum wage hikes, the lobby has pressured state legislatures to ban local wage increases altogether. The industry also fought to overturn voter-approved initiatives in Maine and Washington, D.C., that would have ended the subminimum tipped wage, while they lobbied legislators in Michigan to keep the issue from reaching the ballot in the first place.
That’s why national action to finally reverse this particular vestige of slavery is so vital. No one can live on $2.13 an hour—a poverty wage.
We may live in a very different society from 150 years ago, but the subminimum tipped wage still exacerbates the inequalities passed down from that time. Workers in the restaurant industry are far more likely to be poor or near-poor than the general population. Sure, upscale restaurants where wealthy patrons offer servers good tips on expensive menu items can provide a good living, but those jobs are few and far between—and dominated by white men.
Research also shows that tipping itself has a racial component: Customers generally give white workers bigger tips than black workers, regardless of service quality. Thanks in part to segregation within the industry and discrimination from patrons, restaurant worker poverty rates are highest for women and people of color.
Ending the subminimum wage would right one of the historical wrongs keeping certain groups of workers from receiving the full protections they are due, but ultimately, low wages driven by racism hurt workers of all races. Three times as many white workers as black workers stand to get a raise if the federal minimum wage hike passes. Undoing systemic racism opens up opportunities for all people.
With a Republican Senate and president, the Raise the Wage Act might not become national law in the immediate future. 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.