Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, bestselling author of “How to be an Antiracist,” speaks with Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage, about the subminimum wage for tipped workers and its legacy of slavery and racism at First Parish Church on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Paying lower wages to restaurant workers in the United States is part of the legacy of slavery and continues to contribute to a system of oppression today, a bestselling author, historian and anti-racism activist told a crowd in Portland on Friday night.

“Enslavers imagined that they were providing a wage to enslaved people through providing them with clothes, with housing, with ‘Christianity’ and with ‘civilization,’ ” said Ibram X. Kendi. “In some cases, if not many, they would also provide what they called tips on top of what they considered those wages.”

During the 1830s and 1840s, when movements began to end slavery, there were pro-slavery theories that slavery was good for slaves. “It’s striking because that’s precisely the argument that people are making today, that somehow this (tipped) wage structure is good for restaurant workers,” Kendi said.

Kendi, who is the author of “How to be an Antiracist” and other books, spoke at the First Parish Unitarian Church as part of an event organized by One Fair Wage, a group promoting Question D on the Portland ballot this November. Question D would raise the minimum wage to $18 per hour by 2025 and also abolish the sub-minimum or tipped credit wage for service workers whose employers can currently pay them less than the minimum wage provided the difference is made up in tips.

Opponents of the question, including many tipped workers, say the change isn’t necessary and that it could come with unintended consequences such as restaurants having to close or lay off staff due to higher costs, increased automation and service charges.

Kendi was joined by Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, a Boston-based organization that advocates for all workers to be paid the full minimum wage and for service workers to earn the regular minimum wage with tips on top. Most states, including Maine, currently have a lower tipped minimum wage for service workers.


Jayaraman provided a brief history of how tipping in restaurants evolved out of slavery prior to a question-and-answer session with Kendi. Tipping originally came to the U.S. from Europe, but it wasn’t widespread until 1853, when waiters in large cities around the country, most of whom were white men, went on a national strike demanding higher wages, she said.

The restaurant industry originally replaced the men with white women, believing they could pay them less, but then 10 years later, after emancipation, “something happened that they thought would be an even better opportunity,” Jayaraman said.

Talk-goers fill the pews at First Parish Church to hear Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, bestselling author of “How to be an Antiracist,” speak with Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“They felt that was an opportunity to essentially offer Black people, Black women in particular, the opportunity to work, to have the privilege of earning white people’s tips and to work for free,” she said.

Today, restaurant workers continue to have a much lower federal wage for tipped workers – $2.13 per hour – though the tipped minimum both in Maine and in Portland is above $6 per hour.

“It fits quite firmly with my findings and the history of racism – that is, you have extremely powerful interests who are instituting a racist policy that is disproportionately harming, in this case women of color, and in this case also other people, including white people,” Kendi said.

Kendi said there are ways to address historically racist policies, including through organized labor.

“I think (workers) are recognizing the ways in which multi-racial organizing is critical to union organizing,” Kendi said. “But in order to engage in multi-racial organizing, workers have to overcome racist, sexist ideas that have historically divided the workforce.”

He said people must work on overcoming their own biases, like ideas that people who are impoverished are not working as hard, or that people killed by police were killed because they were reckless around the police.

“Once we start unlearning those racist ideas, it allows us to start seeing the problem not as people, but as actual policies, like the sub-minimum wage, as the cause of inequities,” Kendi said. “When we start seeing those policies and practices as the problem we can start organizing to eliminate them.”

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