Almost 40 percent of American restaurant waiters admit to providing black customers inferior service based on the color of their skin, a new study finds.
“Many people believe that race is no longer a significant issue in the United States,” says Sarah Rusche, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at North Carolina State University and co-author of a paper describing the study, according to a press release.
“But the fact that a third of servers admit to varying their quality of service based on customers’ race, often giving African-Americans inferior service, shows that race continues to be an issue in our society.”
"The sentiment that African Americans are relatively poor tippers is widespread among restaurant servers and as such, many servers likely feel economically justified using customers' race to inform their service interactions," said lead study author Dr. Zachary W. Brewster, Assistant Professor, Wayne State University, Department of Sociology, in an email interview.
He added: "These economic concerns that stem from racial tipping differences are not without merit but they are likely grossly exaggerated by the radicalized discussions that we find to be quite common in restaurants."
Tableside Racism in Full-Service Restaurants
To further understand the extent to which the color of the customer's skin affected the way they were treated at restaurants, a phenomenon called Tableside racism, the study authors surveyed 200 servers at 18 full-service chain restaurants in central North Carolina.
The majority of the servers surveyed –– 86.2% percent ––were white, according to Brewster. "The remaining respondents self identified as black (7.2%), Native American (.5%), Hispanic (1%), Asian (2.1%), or other (3.1%)."
The study, “Quantitative Evidence of the Continuing Significance of Race: Tableside Racism in Full-Service Restaurants,” published online in the Journal of Black Studies, found that 38.5 percent of waiters admit that providing service was informed by the race of their customers, "often resulting in providing inferior service to African-American customers," the study authors write.
"The survey also found that 52.8 percent of servers reported seeing other servers discriminate against African-American customers by giving them poor service."
These findings show that many servers pre-judge African-American customers to be "impolite and/or poor tippers, suggesting that black patrons, in particular, are likely targets of servers’ self-professed discriminatory actions." In other words, black customers, having received poor service, left poor tips.
Racist workplace discussions common
The survey also found that restaurant servers share anti-black perceptions through racist workplace conversations, "indicating a considerable amount of talk about the race of their patrons."
"Only 10.5 percent reported never engaging in or observing racialized discourse," the study authors write.
Why is racialized discourse important?
In a previous study, "Because they tip for shit!’: The Social Psychology of Everyday Racism in Restaurants", the same study authors explain that racist discourse "functions to create and sustain stereotypes about black patrons."
"These workplace interactions shape the service that is extended to black patrons, thus resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein they receive poor tips and treatment from blacks that reflect inferior service," they write.
Race still a significant barrier to equal treatment
"Given strong social pressures discouraging people from honestly expressing their racialized views it was a bit surprising that so many of our respondents readily admitted to providing service that was informed by the race of their customers," Brewster said.
"However, interpreted in relation to servers reliance on tips it makes sense that a large number of them would feel comfortable making such an admission."
According to Rusche, the research shows: “‘Tableside racism’ is yet another example in which African-Americans are stereotyped and subsequently treated poorly in everyday situations."
“Race continues to be a significant barrier to equal treatment in restaurants and other areas of social life,” she writes.
Brewster agreed. "I was not surprised to find that race matters when it comes to restaurant service," he told me. "Through my training I have become very much aware of the fallacy of living in a post-racial society wherein opportunities are no longer tied to the color of one's skin."
"How did these findings influence me?" Brewster reflected when asked.
“It always saddens me to see research findings or hear anecdotes that highlight the differential experiences that people have because of their race,” he said, “but I think that it is important to continue to engage the issue and encourage candid discussions.”
What do you think of the study results? Are they surprising? What's been your experience?