Black hair bias laws are spreading, including in a handful of red states

The days of employers treating black hairstyles and textures as unprofessional may be coming to an end, as laws banning race-based hair discrimination spread rapidly among states and a federal proposal awaits action. of the Senate.

Massachusetts became the latest state to pass a version of the CROWN Act with Gov. Charlie Baker (R) signing on July 26. California and New York first passed the measure just three years ago, and now 18 states have passed it or similar bans on hair bias, with another pending the governor’s signature. from Alaska. Recent adopters include Louisiana, where the state’s new bias law goes into effect August 1.

“This is truly a game-changer for women and black people who have natural hair across our Commonwealth,” State Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley (D), cosponsor of the Massachusetts measure, said at the ceremony. signing the bill. As a black woman, she felt the pressure of spending a lot of time and money changing her hair to be accepted as a public school teacher, law student, and then lawyer, Oakley said.

More than 40% of the American population now lives in states that prohibit discrimination against hairstyles and textures historically affiliated with race, and that’s not counting a few dozen cities and counties with local versions of the law.

Like many of its counterparts across the country, the Massachusetts law expands the state’s definition of racial discrimination to cover certain hairstyles and textures. The expanded bias law applies to employment, housing, public housing, and discrimination in public schools. It specifically protects braids, locks, twists, bantu knots and hair covers, as well as other breed-related styles and textures.

The US House of Representatives passed a nationwide version of the CROWN Act in March, but the bill has not been considered in the Senate.

Impact on the employer

State hair bias laws create potential for more discrimination claims against employers, said Josh Nadreau, an employment law attorney at Fisher & Phillips LLP in Boston. The biggest impact could be for businesses that employ people in public-facing jobs such as retail and hospitality, he added.

“Employers are really going to have to look at their dress code policies” to make sure they’re not defining race-related hairstyles and textures as unacceptable, Nadreau said. They must also train their front-line managers who make hiring, firing and disciplinary decisions.

Companies should also note that the new Massachusetts law does not prohibit all forms of hair restrictions in a corporate dress code, only those that relate to race, he said.

“It doesn’t mean you have to hire the blue-haired person or something that’s not associated with race,” Nadreau said.

Bipartisan Support Councils

Democratic-majority state legislatures have passed most race-related hair bias laws, including Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon and Washington.

But there are glimmers of hope that the CROWN Act will gain Republican support as well.

GOP-majority legislatures in Alaska, Louisiana, Nebraska and Tennessee have passed versions of the measure, though some of them offer narrower protections for workers. The Alaska bill that is waiting to go to the governor does not apply to workplace bias, only to discrimination against public school students. Tennessee law enacted this year limits remedies for hair-related workplace discrimination, only allowing employees to file a complaint with the state’s commissioner of labor, who can issue a warning to the employer.

“It was tough trying to get this law passed in this red state,” said Louisiana State Rep. Candace Newell (D), who sponsored the measure that passed there in June. “I’ve been there and changed languages. I had a lot of one-on-one conversations with my colleagues.

She finally convinced more than enough of her peers to support the ban on discrimination. It passed 74-24 in the House and 29-4 in the Senate.

But many Republican lawmakers are not yet on board. Similar legislation has been introduced and has not progressed in more than 25 states, many of which have GOP-led legislatures.

When the U.S. House of Representatives passed the federal bill in March, Republicans provided just 14 of 235 “yes” votes.

And Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts (R) vetoed the CROWN Act when state lawmakers first passed it in 2020, citing concerns about protecting hairstyles such as braids and locks in the category of racial discrimination, when these styles could be worn by anyone of any race. . Anti-discrimination laws have traditionally protected the immutable characteristics of a person.

“While I agree with the objective, I oppose the form of the bill,” he wrote in his August 2020 veto letter. “It must add protections for employees based on their immutable hair texture and also add protections for employers centered on health and safety standards.”

State lawmakers passed a revised version of the bill in 2021, and Ricketts signed it into law.

Job Notice, “Personal Attacks”

Louisiana’s new law, like a number of other states, allows employers to impose hair restrictions related to health and safety, Newell said. For example, employers could require an employee to tie up their locks or cover their hair at work, but not cut it or use chemicals to straighten it, she said. .

But the law prevents employers from punishing black haircuts just for not liking the look.

Newell cited the example of a black hotel desk clerk she met over the July 4 weekend. The employee told Newell that she received excellent performance reviews for the quality of her work and her interactions with customers, but received low marks from her manager for her appearance because she wore her hair in its natural texture.

Twin sisters Deanna and Mya Cook, who also attended the Massachusetts bill signing, helped inspire state legislation following reports they were punished at school in 2017 for wearing their hair in braids. School officials gave them detention and banned them from activities, including athletic meets and prom.

“It’s really a personal attack” to be told your hair is unacceptable at school, Deanna Cook told reporters during the live ceremony. “And knowing that this can no longer happen in the state of Massachusetts is such a victory.”

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