Why waiters give Black customers poor service

Some argue that the poor service is due to the stereotype that Black people tip less. PavelVinnik/iStock via Getty Images
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PavelVinnik/iStock via Getty Images – The Conversation

The big idea

According to a recent survey, Black diners receive poorer service from waitstaff and bartenders than their white counterparts.

Gerald Nowak, my colleague, and I had over 700 white full-service restaurant servers/bartenders recruited by Gerald Nowak to examine a hypothetical dining situation that involved either black or white customers. Then, we asked them to predict how much tip the table would leave and whether the table would display undesirable dining habits. We also asked them to determine the quality of the service that they would provide.

Participants were also asked to complete a survey in order to find out how often they saw anti-Black bias in their workplaces, and to determine if they harbour prejudices towards African Americans.

Servers who were prejudiced against African Americans or worked in a restaurant that was frequented by racist comments were significantly more likely than those who were not to tip less and displayed uncivil, demanding, and dishonest behavior. These servers reported that they would provide worse service to Black customers than the white ones.

Except for the two conditions of server prejudice and racist workplace words or behaviors, we found no evidence of discriminatory treatment.

Why it is important

Although it is commonly believed that bias and actual discrimination are linked, it is rarely proven to be the cause of mistreatment Black Americans continue to suffer in their daily lives.

Our results not only provide new evidence for this connection but also have important practical implications. Surveys show that Black customers tip less because they are less familiar with tipping norms of 15%-20% than white customers. It is believed that servers are economically motivated to offer preferential service to customers of color who are more likely than them to pay for it.

Some have responded by suggesting that voluntary tipping should be abolished, or that steps be taken in order to eliminate the Black/white tipping difference through increasing Black customers' familiarity with tipping norms.

We did not find any evidence of stereotyping or service discrimination without anti-Black bias. This suggests that the solution to this problem lies in addressing racial prejudices within the restaurant industry.

We don't know what the future holds.

Our study has a drawback. We asked servers how they would react to hypothetically controlled and experimentally altered conditions. When servers are unable to wait for actual black and white customers, we cannot predict how this would play out. It would be difficult to do so. Because our participants were not randomly chosen, we are unable to assess how well they reflect the workplaces and attitudes of servers and bartenders across the country.

However, previous research has shown that people's responses to hypothetical situations are similar to their actual actions. This gives us confidence in our real-world applications of our findings.

Next steps

We are currently studying racial discrimination at the other end of the table. This is done by studying the tendency of restaurant customers to tip Black servers less than white servers. Our ongoing research project, which includes a survey to more than 2,000 restaurant customers in the country, aims to document further this type of consumer racial disparity.

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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site that shares ideas from academic experts. It was written by Zachary Brewster, Wayne State University.

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Zachary Brewster is not affiliated with any company or organization that Zachary Brewster consults, owns shares in, or receives funding from.