White hand to white hand


ONE OF the strongest racial divisions I've noticed in my two years as a full-time cabbie is in tipping.

Out of curiosity, I once logged the tips I received from 200 consecutive passengers by race and sex.

The results of my survey confirmed by general impression. Of the 80 white passengers I carried during the course of my unscientific study, 78 tipped at least 10 percent of the total fare. Of the 120 blacks I carried during the same period, only 14 tipped enough to notice. Another 22 tipped minuscule amounts, on the order of "Keep the change" from $8 on a $7.80 fare.

White women were the most generous, tipping well over 30 percent on the average. African-American men were the least generous, with an average tip of less than 3 percent. This imbalance in tipping, I believe, more than fear on the part of cab drivers, is what causes racial and sexual discrimination in the taxi business.

The discrimination is real, and it is not new. Mayor Kurt Schmoke once told me how, as a young attorney, he often asked his white, female secretary to hail cabs for him; it was the only way he could get one.

Schmoke, like many other blacks, knew white racism couldn't be blamed for the cabbies' reluctance to pick him up. He noticed that black cabbies were as likely to prefer white passengers as were their white counterparts.

I am continually amazed by the inability of blacks to tip. I cannot attribute this inability to poverty. Ignorance of the custom seems prevalent among African-Americans who live in suburban luxury as among inner-city blacks living in subsidized housing.

Conversely, white housing project residents almost invariably tip, even though the amounts may be small.

Then I started to look at the people I saw working in restaurants, bars and other tip-oriented service industries.

And I noticed something, especially in the restaurant business: Virtually all of the people who hold lucrative, tip-producing jobs are white.

There are exceptions. Many hotel doormen are black. In fact, large hotels seem to be the only service operations where blacks have more than a small chance to get into tip-producing positions, unless you count car washes.

And, in my experience, those blacks who work in tip-producing jobs tend to tip as generously as their white co-workers. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them to spread the custom through the black community.

In white society, the tip-producing job has been a part of growing up for decades. My first job was as a busboy in a French restaurant. My wife worked as a coffee shop waitress while in college.

Our friends, even if they worked in jobs where tips were not customary, learned from us. It was almost impossible to grow up in white suburban or rural society without holding, or knowing someone who held, a tip-producing job.

In urban African-American society, such jobs are less common. Railroad porters were, for many years, almost the only blacks who depended on tips for their income. My first girlfriend was black. The daughter of a railroad porter, she taught me more about tipping than I taught her. It took me many years to learn that she was an aberration, not the norm.

Now, when I eat in a restaurant, I take a much closer look at who is serving me. In the casual coffee shops I favor, I see almost no black waitresses. Blacks are almost always confined to the kitchen and dish room, destined to work long hours for minimum wage or very little over it.

Every restaurant in town has black employees, but the jobs they hold are usually the hardest, lowest-paying positions available. Tips, in the black experience, obviously go from one white hand to another.

Robin Miller writes from Baltimore.


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