This year, more states are weighing measures to prohibit hair discrimination in work or school settings, joining 14 other states that have enacted similar laws over the past few years.
For decades, Black Americans have been villainized and discriminated against because of their natural hair, whether they’re showcasing their hair texture or wearing protective styles such as braids, twists or dreadlocks. In many cases, employers have demanded Black people cut or change their hair or fired them for not doing so.
“[Black people are asking], ‘How can we be ourselves at work?’ In 2022, it’s still a struggle, and it has a lot to do with policies,” said Patricia O’Brien-Richardson, an associate professor of teaching at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. “Thankfully we are moving towards a situation where this won’t be an issue, but people can still be fired until this becomes a formalized act.”
In March, the U.S. House approved the CROWN Act, an acronym for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, which would prohibit discrimination in workplace settings, public accommodations, housing and federally funded programs. The bill now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Meanwhile, at least 12 states are considering similar bills this legislative session: Alabama, Alaska, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Tennessee, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and Stateline research. The measures in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Missouri have moved to the state Senate. Other bills remain in committee.
Proposals in three states—Florida, Mississippi and Utah—failed to make it out of committees.
In Louisiana last spring, one GOP lawmaker voting against CROWN Act legislation said it was unneeded. "African American people are already protected as a protected class under race discrimination hiring practices,” said state Rep. Larry Frieman, according to the Louisiana Illuminator. The bill was reintroduced this year and is in a House committee.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of Boston University School of Law, said she suspects more states will pass laws. Multiple factors, she said, have contributed to the heightened interest in legislation, including the U.S. Army’s 2017 decision to lift its ban on dreadlocks, calls for racial justice following the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the awareness of Black hair through publication of books and films.
“I think you had more people who were reading and just understanding a little bit more about discrimination and could see hair discrimination as something more than just something about a hairstyle,” Onwuachi-Willig said. “They began to understand it as race discrimination.”
Other factors also have boosted the legislation. The evolution of the natural hair movement, news coverage of Black people affected by work and school-based hair policies and advocacy efforts by Black people all have pushed lawmakers to craft bills, said O’Brien-Richardson, who has researched the intersection of racial discrimination and hair discrimination for more than a decade.
O’Brien-Richardson recalled watching the news in December 2018 when Andrew Johnson, then a 16-year-old Black high school wrestler in New Jersey, was forced to either cut his dreadlocks before his wrestling match or forfeit. She saw Black and White residents come together to support Johnson and question grooming policies. It was at that moment, she said, she knew people were fed up.
Six months later, California became the first state to pass a race-based hair discrimination law.
“It just goes to show how this [issue] touched a visceral nerve across age and across gender. This is where it started to grow to the point where society is now saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” O’Brien-Richardson said. “And at that time, the CROWN Act became a reality.”
The issue already had begun to gain momentum in Massachusetts in 2017, when two young Black twin sisters were disciplined for wearing long braids to their charter school. Because the students refused to change their hair, they were kicked off their sports teams.
Democratic state Rep. Steven Ultrino sponsored a bill last year that would have prohibited discrimination against natural hairstyles in an attempt to end racial bias against Black students at schools. The measure failed to pass because of other matters, he said, so he decided to reintroduce the bill this session. It recently passed the state House and was reported favorably out of a Senate committee.
“People ask, why would you file such a bill? Well, because my constituents were affected by it,” said Ultrino, who is White. “If it affects my constituents, I’m gonna fight for them.”
For the past three years, Florida state Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Black Democrat who is now running for Congress, has filed a related measure. The legislation has stumbled every year. Bracy said some lawmakers who also are business owners think they should be able to set their own policies, which has made it difficult for the bill to move forward.
“I tell legislators or people who may be opposed to this … ‘This is their natural hair. You have a problem with how their hair is naturally growing out of their head,’” Bracy said. “You have to see a problem in a person not being able to grow their hair the way it grows. I think they haven’t even thought about it because they’re so used to people adjusting to their norm instead of their own.”
Supporters of the bill point out that Black students still are being punished for their hair.
In March, Jacob Rush, a high school senior at Abeka Christian Academy in Florida, received a letter informing him that he couldn’t wear his dreadlocks to graduation if he wanted to walk across the stage, according to The Black Wall St. Times. Rush’s mother created a Change.org petition that garnered more than 37,000 signatures. The school issued an apology on Facebook for its “insensitive rule of no dreadlocks.”
Race-based hair discrimination is not a new phenomenon for Black people.
A 2020 research article published in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science by professors from Michigan State and Duke universities showed a bias against Black female job applicants. The authors found that Black women with natural hairstyles were “perceived to be less professional, less competent, and less likely to be recommended for a job interview than Black women with straightened hairstyles and White women with either curly or straight hairstyles.”
Another research study by Dove, the main company pushing CROWN Act legislation, found that 53% of Black girls as early as 5 years old have experienced hair discrimination. And Black women are one and a half times more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair, according to Dove.
The work by advocacy organizations, lawmakers and the community at large to bring awareness to the issues and pass laws will allow young people to live without penalty, O’Brien-Richardson said.
“I feel like for young girls, young women and men to be able to enter a world where they have the freedom to not be penalized as they are themselves, that’s huge,” she said.