WASHINGTON — When a Black New Jersey teen was forced to cut his dreadlocks in order to participate in a high school wrestling match in late 2018, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) was taken aback.
The wrestler, Andrew Johnson, received a hurried haircut after he was told by a referee that his hair violated wrestling rules. He won the match and state officials opened a civil rights investigation, the New York Times reported.
Now members of Congress are trying to make sure that never happens again.
Lawrence and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) are pushing for a bill that would ban discrimination based on hair textures and styles, which backers say would improve equity in education, employment, housing and other public progams.
Discrimination based on hair texture and style is “a chronic issue that needs to be addressed very aggressively and boldly,” Tlaib told the Michigan Advance in a phone interview.
Their bill, known as the CROWN Act, would clarify that discrimination based on race or national origin encompasses hair texture and style. The legislative language specifically names styles commonly associated with Black people, such as dreadlocks, cornrows, twists and Bantu knots.
Introduced in December, the bill has the support of more than three dozen House Democrats, including Lawrence and Tlaib. No other Michigan lawmakers have signed on to the bill — or a companion measure in the Senate — at this point.
The issue is of particular concern to Black women, whose hair is more likely than white women’s hair to be perceived as “unprofessional,” according to a 2019 study of 2,000 Black and white women. It was supported by Dove, a beauty company that came under fire in 2017 for an ad that featured a Black woman who took off her shirt and transformed into a white woman.
The study finds that Black women are also more likely than white women to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair and more likely to report harsh judgments based on looks. Four out of five said they have to change their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.
But women aren’t the only victims of hair-based discrimination.
“This is about men as well,” Lawrence said in an interview, citing Johnson, the high school wrestler from New Jersey. Another example: Last October, Penn State football player Jonathan Sutherland received a letter calling his dreadlocks “awful” and “disgusting.”
Another high-profile incident involves Chastity Jones, a black woman who applied for a job in 2010 as a customer service representative with Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS), an insurance claims company in Alabama. She got the job, but the company rescinded the offer because she wouldn’t comply with a request to cut her dreadlocks.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against CMS, but a district court ruled for the company, arguing that its grooming policy did not constitute intentional discrimination because hair styles, unlike skin color, are not an “immutable” characteristic.
The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in 2016.
A ‘legal fiction’
Wendy Greene, a law professor at Drexel University, disputed the court’s reasoning, calling the doctrine of immutability a “legal fiction” that is “rooted in a discredited view of race as biological and unchangeable.”
People classify individuals racially through various characteristics, including hairstyles and texture, she said in an interview, noting that such characteristics were used as a basis to enslave people.
Black women in particular have a “narrow way” in which they can show up at work, she said. Conforming to biases favoring straight hair can be exhausting, timely and expensive, not to mention a threat to physical and mental health. “Our federal civil rights laws absolutely can and should protect against systematic discrimination,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean change isn’t taking place.
In the last decade, the U.S. military changed its policies regarding women’s hairstyles in response to objections of racial bias from members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Policies have improved, but some restrictions remain, according to Samara Sheff, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), a member of the caucus.
Last year, California, New York and New Jersey, as well as New York City, Cincinnati and Montgomery County, Md., enacted bans on hair-based discrimination.
Lawmakers in about a dozen other states — including Michigan — have introduced similar state-level legislation. State Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) last summer introduced House Bill 4811 to prevent discrimination by expanding Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to recognize a person’s hair as a characteristic of race.
“As a woman of color, I know people often judge me by the way I look — my perceived gender, my skin color, but also, my natural hair,” Anthony told the Michigan Advance at the time.
Even so, action at the state and local levels is not enough, Lawrence said. A federal law is needed to clarify, strengthen and unify anti-discrimination laws across the country.
“When you have federal law, you can’t pass state laws that go against that,” she said.
Lawrence says the CROWN Act has the support it needs in the Democratic-controlled House, and said the Congressional Black Caucus — of which she is a member — is pushing for a committee hearing on the issue this year.
But prospects on the other side of the Capitol are dim.
The GOP-controlled Senate is consumed with impeachment for the moment, and the presidential election year will make bipartisan agreement more difficult to achieve.
Meanwhile, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been sitting on hundreds of bills passed by the Democratic-led House.
“I don’t have a lot of hope for anything in the Senate right now,” Lawrence said. “We have been doing our job and passing bills and regulations, but they’re all sitting over in McConnell’s graveyard.”
But Tlaib said that won’t dissuade her and others from pushing for the Crown Act. “It’s the right thing to do,” she said — regardless of what McConnell thinks or does across the Capitol.
Even if the federal legislation doesn’t pass this year, the broader campaign to end hair-based discrimination could usher in larger social change, according to Steven Gatley, a California attorney who specializes in employment law.
Federal, state and local initiatives are raising awareness about the problem and could encourage employers across the country to review grooming policies on their own, he said. In doing so, they may find that their hair-related policies are out of date, he said.
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.