Here’s a Tip: Racism Has a Lawn History

University of Oregon President Michael Schill will have to balance justice and mercy by determining the fate — that is, the name henceforth — of Deady Hall. I favor mercy. Humility that comes with age.

Simply put, we’re never as smart as we think we are. It seems to every generation that history has stopped with them. We each learn too late that it didn’t. Allow me to speculate on just three common customs that may earn our descendants’ derision: tipping, lawns and bottled water.

Tipping became the norm in the United States only during prohibition. Restaurateurs struggled to survive without liquor profits. From desperation, owners shifted quickly from prohibiting employees from taking customers’ bribes for preferential treatment to requiring them to do exactly that.

When Oregon raised its minimum wage two decades ago, restaurant owners warned that it would widen the pay gap between tipped employees and the rest of their staff. One of our writers at the Comic News proposed that Oregon could remedy this problem by forbidding tipping statewide. A Portland newspaper wanted to reprint our modest proposal, but balked when the writer refused to shed her pseudonym.

Tipping is well loved — suspiciously so. Several chefs in New York City and a couple in other cities have experimented with a no-tipping policies. Customers have regularly complained or circumvented the policy. The experiments have failed in almost every case, and failed with the fury that befits a hidden shame. That shame may not remain hidden forever.

Matthew Deady may have had a “complicated” view of slavery, but we can’t imagine any gray areas around buying another human being. And yet, we feel perfectly comfortable renting the effort and attention of those who serve our restaurant meals in return for our uncertain benevolence. Likewise with those who cut our hair, tote our luggage, and deliver our pizza. Will later generations consider this cultural norm of tipping as slavery-lite? Don’t bet against it.

Lawns have a longer history, but not a happier one. Lush residential greenery may have led to the French Revolution. Countryside manors favored by 18th century elites required a small army of servants to maintain. Medieval serfdom had been slowly adapting to changing times. Workers were offered small plots of land on the outskirts of the manor, to be used for subsistence farming.

But then lawns became a status symbol of wanton wealth, leaving less land available for potatoes and vegetables. Servants were squeezed, but nothing could be done. The plush carpet of green became essential, even if it meant hunger for those given the job of maintaining those lawns.

Hunger has not yet been solved, and yet we keep our lawns. Most of the world wonders what we’re thinking. Our neighbor had a foreign exchange student from Asia who was further mystified by sprinklers. “You water the grass, so it will grow,” she asked, “so you can cut it?” It makes exactly that much sense. Someday, the world will see that our land and our water can be put to better use, leaving later generations to defend our relationship with grass to be “complicated.”

Except when we’re watering ourselves — there’s nothing complicated about that, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise. We buy bottled water because we believe it’s better. More precisely, we believe that we believe it’s better. Time and again, consumers cannot taste a difference between tap and bottled waters. And almost nobody enjoys better water than what EWEB and SUB conveys from the McKenzie River to our faucets.

Bottled water is essential in certain parts of the world, but not here. We all should keep a week’s supply in case of an emergency. But buying water in plastic bottles for daily use in Oregon will not age well. We should be embarrassed, but we’re not.

Our only hope will be if our children take our bad habits further, leaving us to look like moderates. Maybe they’ll use bottled water on their lawns, distributed by a struggling underclass whose labors are rewarded only with whatever their patrons are willing to tip.

Every generation sees the back of history’s hand too late for total redemption.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blog