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Discrimination Based on Hair Styles is Now Illegal Under California Law

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Image result for patrick r kitchinThe Public Shearing of Andrew Johnson’s Dreadlocks

In December 2018, a video showed a white high school trainer in New Jersey cutting dreadlocks from 16-year old African American wrestler, Andrew Johnson. The lead referee had instructed him, ‘Cut your hair in the next 90 seconds, or you will be banned from today’s competition.’

The image is shocking: a white woman roughly cutting a black teenager’s hair in front of an auditorium filled with parents and children.  Andrew stared straight ahead.  The school initially argued haircut was needed for the safety of the wrestlers in accordance with standard rules about wrestlers’ hair length.

The justification for the act quickly was overpowered by its dreadful significance.  In response to the public outcry, the state attorney general’s office suspended the referee for two years, and ordered educators in all high schools in New Jersey to undergo implicit bias training.

A Conversation Begins

Public reactions to the video ranged from outrage to denial.  According to an April 17, 2019 Washington Post article about Mr. Johnson, residents of his hometown, in New Jersey had mixed reactions too.

Many who attended the match that night, saw the cutting of Andrew’s dreadlocks as an act of racial intolerance.  Others blamed Andrew himself for failing to follow hair length rules applicable to all wrestlers.  Some saw the event as proof that racism in America is endemic.  Others argued it was racist to claim that the cutting of Andrew Johnson’s deadlocks was an act of racial discrimination.

California Leads the Way

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) does not lay out an exhaustive list of acts and attitudes that violate the rights of job seekers and employees.  That is part of its strength.  If gives us the flexibility to decide whether an act or process is discriminatory based on the evidence in specific cases.

Instead of relying on a limited number of examples, FEHA sets out protected categories of people and conditions. One’s race falls into one of the protected categories.  Being disabled places a person into another.  A person cannot be harassed or discriminated against based on their status as a member or one or more of these categories.

Beginning January 1, 2020, policies and practices that target hairstyles associated with race constitute acts of discrimination in both education and employment.  Known as the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), Senate Bill 188 modifies the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Education Code.  The newly defined additional category states that discrimination based on race now includes “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”

Senate Bill 188 Expands Protections Against Discrimination in Employment and Education

California has some of the most broadly protective employment discrimination laws in the nation.  The CROWN Act adds “Protective hairstyles” as an additionally protected category under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.  SB-188 also amends the California Education Code to prohibit discrimination based on “Protective hairstyles,” which “includes, but is not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.”

In a world where physical appearance continues to be employed as a weapon for denying equal protection under the law to all citizens and residents, the new law makes a powerful statement about race and ethnicity-based discrimination.  “Hair remains a rampant source of racial discrimination with serious economic and health consequences, especially for Black individuals,” the Legislature declares.

The Legislature’s Preamble to SB 188

The Legislative preamble to SB-188 makes a powerful statement about hair in the context of the history of race discrimination and toxic ethnocentrism in America.

To combat bigoted ideas that have permeated “societal understanding of professional,” the preamble states, “Workplace dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on Black individuals as these policies are more likely to deter Black applicants and burden or punish Black employees than any other group…, The Legislature recognizes that continuing to enforce a Eurocentric image of professionalism through purportedly race-neutral grooming policies that disparately impact Black individuals and exclude them from some workplaces is in direct opposition to equity and opportunity for all.”

Watershed Moments

The public shearing of Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks in 2018 is another watershed moment in the history of race relations in America.  The public haircut of a black child surrounded by white adults generated discussions across our country about who we are and how we think about, and treat, others.

Bigotry is almost always accompanied by insults denigrating others based on their physical characteristics, whether it be skin or hair.  The legislative preamble to SB 188 should be required reading for every HR manager, supervisor and educator in California.

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:Patrick R. Kitchin is the founder of Kitchin Legal APC, a San Francisco, California employment law firm. He has represented thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. Patrick also represents employers requiring guidance in California employment law. Patrick is a graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and rated AV-Preeminent by Martindale-Hubbell, its highest ranking for legal knowledge, skill, experience and ethics.


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When is a hairstyle not just a hairstyle? When it’s a pretext for discrimination.

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African Americans in particular find that their afros, cornrows and dreadlocks are held against them at school and when applying for jobs.

Employers in California no longer will be allowed to reject job candidates because they dislike their curls, coils, kinks or locks, after the governor signed a first-of-its-kind bill outlawing hair discrimination.

The new measure, signed Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), bans discrimination against a job candidate or school applicant for wearing natural hairstyles.

“There’s a human element to this. We don’t want to diminish people, we don’t want to demean people … We have to own up to the sins of the past,” Newsom said. “I hope that folks are paying attention all across this country.”

The bill was approved unanimously in both the California House and Senate.

The text of the measure states that throughout its history the United States has been “riddled with laws and societal norms that equated ‘blackness,’ and the associated physical traits, for example, dark skin, kinky and curly hair to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment.”

The issue is a particularly fraught one for African Americans who have been expected to style their hair to conform with Caucasian norms of beauty or acceptability, especially in the workplace.

“Professionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional,” the text of the legislation said.

Discrimination over her dreadlocks led Chastity Jones to fight a 10-year legal battle with an employer who fired her because she refused to get rid of the hairstyle. “It had nothing to do with the job,” she said. “It just had everything to do with my hair.”

Jones sued in 2013 for discrimination and lost wages, but her was dismissed by the court. The NAACP filed a petition last year on her behalf to the Supreme Court, but it declined to take the case.

And it has not just been a problem for workers: Last August, Louisiana sixth grader Faith Fennidy was kicked off the grounds of her Catholic school because her hair, neatly parted and swept back into braided ponytails, violated school policy.

ThinkProgress readers might also recall the case of Andrew Johnson, the high school wrestler in New Jersey who was told in December that he would have to submit to having his dreadlocks shorn off or forfeit the match.

California state Sen. Holly Mitchell introduced the anti-discrimination bill in her state, which extends the same protections that an individual would be afforded because of their skin color to their natural hairstyle and texture.

“The way the hair grows out of my head as a black woman is a trait of race,” Mitchell said, explaining the thinking behind her legislation, which has been dubbed the CROWN Act.

Reports say similar legislation is being considered in New Jersey and in New York, where a bill against discrimination on the basis of a person’s natural hair has passed both chambers of the state legislature and is awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Stephanie Griffith is a senior editor. She has worked as an editor and reporter for the Associated Press, The Washington Post, and Agence France-Presse, among other journalism gigs.

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