Lawmakers to introduce first federal bills to ban race-based hair discrimination
By Jena McGregor Dec. 5, 2019 at 5:00 a.m. CST
Race-based hair discrimination in workplaces and schools has long been an obstacle for black employees and students, but now it is gaining widespread attention and action in broader circles.
The latest example: After a growing number of states have passed or proposed legislation that would expressly prohibit discrimination based on natural or protective hairstyles, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) plan to introduce companion bills Thursday that would specifically prohibit discrimination against styles such as braids, twists or locs.
“Discrimination against black hair is discrimination against black people,” Booker said in a statement. “Implicit and explicit biases against natural hair are deeply ingrained in workplace norms and society at large."
Even if the bill never becomes law — which seems likely given today’s divided Congress — its introduction should raise awareness of this form of discrimination.
“More people are reporting it, both within an educational context and employment context,” said Lisa Cylar Barrett, director of policy with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which worked with Booker’s office on the bill and has represented people facing hair discrimination. “It’s a form of racial discrimination. That’s how we should talk about it.”
Two states — California and New York — banned race-based hair discrimination this year, and lawmakers in 13 other states are discussing or have proposed similar bills, said Adjoa Asamoah, a political consultant who leads advocacy for the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Coalition, a network of civil rights organizations, black advocacy groups and the beauty brand Dove that has backed similar legislation at the state level.
In November, Montgomery County became the first jurisdiction in the Washington region to ban discrimination against natural hairstyles.
Asamoah said the CROWN Coalition’s work on the issue, combined with the natural hair movement among young women, have been influential.
“It’s impossible to separate the two,” she said. “It wasn’t something that had hit the mainstream media previously — while we’ve always talked about it at our kitchen tables and at the hairdressers'.”
Meanwhile, stories of students or employees who have been asked to cut their hair or faced workplace discrimination based on hairstyles have proliferated in the media. In New Jersey, the story of student-wrestler Andrew Johnson, who was forced to have his locs cut last year, went viral and piqued Booker’s interest in the loophole in federal civil rights law, an aide said.
In October, Pennsylvania State University defended a football player who received a letter from an alumnus criticizing his dreadlocks. And in November, the issue came up again amid the departure of “America’s Got Talent” judge Gabrielle Union, after a report in Variety that she had received repeated criticism that her changing hairstyles were “too black” for the audience.
NBC Universal said in a statement that it had an initial conversation with Union on Wednesday that “was candid and productive. While there will be further investigation to get a deeper understanding of the facts, we are working with Gabrielle to come to a positive resolution."
“The interest in natural hair is at an all-time high,” said Ashley Scott, the founder of CurlyInCollege, an online community for young black women. “Not only [among] we as members of the community, but the industry is responding.”
Yet Scott, who said she once had a boss suggest dreadlocks longer than shoulder-length weren’t “professional,” said that hasn’t erased the expectation many young women still feel to conform. “Natural hair is still very much a controversial decision for young women and men,” she said.
Janeé Burch, a junior at North Carolina A&T State University, said that even at historically black colleges like hers, “we’re still taught we might have to tone it down when we go to” job interviews. She said a federal bill is a sign that awareness is growing.
“We’re not at a place where I feel like black people can be 100 percent themselves anywhere they go, but it shows it’s moving to a place where it’s becoming a conversation that can be had on a large scale — and not just black women talking to black women,” Burch said.