Congress Takes Action to Address Hair Discrimination

Hair has long affected Black women in schools and in the workplace. A 2019 study confirmed that Black women report being 30% more likely to receive a formal grooming policy in the workplace, and 80% of Black women report that they felt a need to change their hairstyle to align with more conservative standards in order to “fit in” at work.

Hair discrimination is defined as the prejudicial treatment based on an individual’s natural hairstyle in the workplace, housing, and schools. In 2017, in EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that “banning dreadlocks in the workplace under a race-neutral grooming policy – without more – does not constitute intentional race-based discrimination.” Thus, the Court effectively held that refusing to hire an individual because of their dreadlocks is entirely legal.

But that is changing. In 2019, California became the first state to pass the CROWN Act, which updates the definition of “race” in the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the California Education Code to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” The California Act specifically prevents enforcement of grooming policies that claim to be race neutral but effectively have a disproportionate negative impact on people of color. Similarly, the New York City Commission on Human Rights has adopted guidelines under which it can impose a penalty on those who harass, demote, or fire individuals because of their hair. Then, in July 2019, New York became the second state to pass its own CROWN Act. Finally, in December 2019, New Jersey became the third state to enact an anti-discrimination law to “protect people of color facing discrimination based on their hairstyle.” Twenty-two additional states (Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin) have considered similar legislation.

Congress has now joined that group. On March 18, the US House of Representatives passed the CROWN Act. The acronym of this and other similar legislation stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” Like prior versions of the law, the main provisions of the bill center on banning hair discrimination in employment, housing programs, and public access accommodations. The Act was sponsored in the House by New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson and passed with a vote of 235-189 along party lines.

The CROWN Act will next make its way to the Senate, where it will encounter stiffer opposition. Even without the federal law, employers can do their part to prevent discrimination related to hairstyle and texture by highlighting these forms of discrimination their workplace rules and training – especially with managers. Also, it is important for employers to check their grooming/workplace policies to ensure that it does not restrict or outright ban natural hair or hairstyles associated with people of any particular race, national origin, ethnicity, or religion. Certainly, in some cases, policies are required for safety or hygiene purposes, but employers should craft those policies to be racially-neutral and carefully focused on those purposes.

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