On the way to work this morning, I heard on the news about a new study by a Cornell sociologist -- Dr (something) Lynn, I think -- who has shed some light on one of the cultural conflicts that causes racism to persist in the US.
It is often alleged -- and in fact there have been lawsuits over this -- that the restaurant industry is institutionally biased against black customers. It turns out that this is true, but that there's a reason for it. Lynn (well, probably some research assistants, but never mind that) ran a survey where he'd catch customers coming out of a variety of sit-down restaurants, and ask them about their dining experience, and how much they tipped. It turns out that blacks -- including middle-class blacks who had a pleasant experience -- tip 3-4% less than whites, on average -- whites tip about 16.5%, whereas blacks tip 13%. This isn't because they're stingy or anything, it's just that their own parents didn't really know "tipping etiquette", and so they never learned.
Further supporting this idea was the fact that in one heavily-black Maryland community that was researched, it was found that blacks were tipping at the typical white rate. Upon further investigation, it turned out that when an Outback Steakhouse had opened a local franchise, the franchise owner / manager, a rather socially conscious black man, met with the city council and the neighborhood association to talk to them about the jobs that would be provided to local residents when his restaurant opened, and how those jobs were compensated (i.e. waiters getting paid at, or sometimes below, minimum wage, and making up for it on tips). Thus, people in that community had become more aware of how their friends and neighbors were making their living, and how tipping relates to service; and they improved their tips accordingly. (This story, incidentally, inclines me to think rather more highly of Outback, though I suppose that manager could be an exception. I know nytemuse actually says that their food is pretty good, for the price... I generally am not hugely fond of the middlebrow chains, though Pasta Pomodoro, which used to be a Bay-Area only chain, and has recently begun franchising nationwide, is pretty darn good.)
Lynn also did interviews with lots of waiters -- including blacks and other minorities -- to ask about whether they'd noticed the tipping issue and whether it affected their feelings about serving black customers. Almost all of them said yes. To a degree, there's probably a self-fulfilling prophecy here: if a waiter is reluctant to provide service, the service is going to end up being worse, and the tip will go down. But the first half of the study, and the case with the Outback, suggests that the cultural component is important.
So, this leaves the question: How can the restaurant industry communicate to black patrons (and probably other minorities that tend to be poorer, more recently arrived, and less culturally assimilated -- e.g. Hispanics, and some communities of SE Asians or Arabs) about tipping, without coming across as condescending or demanding? It's something of a challenge, but clearly not an insurmountable one. Possibly if more managers would take the initiative, as in the case above, this whole thing could be resolved within a decade or two.
Wiping out causes of implicit racism seems like a good thing, no?