After decades of narrow interpretation of Title VII protections by federal courts, states and municipal legislatures take action to prevent discrimination of hairstyles “historically associated with race.”
This is it!
You have a killer resume, you smashed the initial phone interview, and you’ve been rehearsing your handshake for days. Reaching into your medicine cabinet, you pull out a tube of your very special hair gel; the kind that’s rated a 6 out of 5 for “strength and hold.” You squeeze out just the right amount, rub it into your hair, and sculpt your mane into a proud dorsal fin (you are a shark after all). Your brother-in-law, your cousin, even David Beckham all sport the legendary faux hawk, but yours is the very best.
At the interview though, the manager seems distracted. You’re approached by HR at the conclusion of the interview and they inform you that if you intend to wear your hair in this manner, there is unfortunately no place for you at this organization. In their words, hairstyles like yours, “they tend to get messy.” This is the explanation an African American woman received in 2010 when her prospective employer discovered she wore her hair in locks, also referred to as dreadlocks.
History of Hair & Law
The court’s involvement with racial hairstyles began in 1970, after Blue Cross Blue Shield disqualified an employee from a promotion because she, “could never represent Blue Cross with [her] Afro.” The US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit determined that Blue Cross’ actions broke Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court contended that the employee’s natural or “immutable” style of hair was indistinguishable from her race. That, “the reference to the hairstyle was merely the method by which the plaintiff’s supervisor allegedly expressed the employer’s racial discrimination.”
A decade later, however, this ruling would not extend to protect an American Airlines employee, who was prevented by company policy from wearing cornrows. According to The US District Court for the Southern District of New York, the company did not break Title VII because the employee’s hairstyle was, “not the product of natural hair growth but of artifice,” thereby establishing a distinction between “immutable” and “artificial” hair. Following the new Millennium, the Eleventh Circuit determined that the woman mentioned at the beginning of this article, who was told her locks would prevent her from employment because they, “get messy,” did not have support from Title VII.
New York City Bans Hair Discrimination
Had the woman applied for this position 9 years later and in any of New York’s 5 boroughs, she would have had the protection of local law. It was in February 2019 that the New York City Commission on Human Rights released a guidance document stating that the New York City Human Rights Law protects, “natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities…such as locks, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”
California is First State to Ban Hair Discrimination
On June 28, 2019, California upped the ante and passed Senate Bill 188 or the CROWN Act, named after the CROWN Coalition (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), which added to the definition of “race”, “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”
New York State is Second State to Ban Hair Discrimination
Two weeks later, the Empire State, not to be outdone, extended racial hairstyle protections beyond New York City to the rest of the state.
New Jersey Next to Ban Hair Discrimination
The same protections may even extend down the Northeast Corridor, as Senate Bill 3945 is now pending in New Jersey.
StraightforWARD Legal Advice:
With these swift changes, companies should consider, regardless of their municipality or state, removing ambiguous grooming policies and updating anti-bias training in order to prevent racial discrimination. When in doubt, just stick to the golden rule; whether it be cornrows or crew cuts, weaves or “Rachels”, treat others’ hair the way you would want yours to be treated. If any further doubt exists, contact your Ward Law attorney for more StraightforWARD legal advice.