Employers can engage in racial discrimination in myriad ways without realizing it. For many years, one of these has been by using so-called “grooming policies” to prohibit employees from wearing their hair in its natural state or in various styles worn predominantly by African Americans.
In July 2019, California became the first state to prohibit discrimination against natural hair by employers and schools with the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace). The state senator who authored the legislation said that it was intended to “ensure protection against discrimination in the workplace and schools based on hairstyles by prohibiting…purportedly ‘race neutral’ grooming policies that disproportionately impact persons of color.”
A University of Southern California sociologist who has studied the natural hair movement says that “racializing [natural] hair as inferior has been a key ideological tactic in denying black people social, economic, and political power.” Since California’s CROWN Act became law, six other states, including New York, Colorado and Virginia, have passed similar legislation.
A bill that would create a federal CROWN Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives late last year. The bill, whose co-sponsors include California Rep. Barbara Lee and the late Rep. John Lewis, would prohibit discrimination based on hair style or texture. It was quickly taken up by Sen. Cory Booker, who introduced a similar bill in the Senate this January. It (like many other pieces of legislation) is still awaiting consideration there.
If in doubt about addressing hair styles, clothing or other matters of personal style or grooming in the workplace, it’s wise to talk with an employment law attorney to help avoid accusations of discrimination and potential legal issues that can hurt your bottom line as well as your reputation.