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. Dwight Evans, D-3rd District, 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.
The Pennsylvania Democrat and other federal lawmakers 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 programs.
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 Evans. No other Pennsylvania lawmaker has signed on to the bill — or a companion measure in the Senate — at this point.
“The whole thing is to stamp out discrimination,” Evans told the Capital-Star. “That’s the message to it all.”
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 their 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,” said U.S. Rep. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., 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.
Jones sought to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court did not grant a motion that would have allowed the case to continue.
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 Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore, a member of the caucus.
Last year, California, New York and New Jersey, as well as New York City, Cincinatti and Montgomery County, Md. — enacted bans on hair-based discrimination.
Lawmakers in about a dozen other states — including Pennsylvania — have introduced similar state-level legislation.
Even so, action at the state and local levels is not enough, said Lawrence of Michigan. A federal law is needed to clarify, strengthen and unify anti-discrimination laws across the country.
The CROWN Act will “send a message” that discrimination is not acceptable, Evans said.
Lawrence says the bill has the support it needs in the Democratic-controlled House, and said the Congressional Black Caucus — of which she and Evans are members — is pushing for a committee hearing on the issue this year.
But prospects on the other side of the Capitol are dim.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced a companion measure in the Senate in December.
But the GOP-controlled chamber is consumed with impeachment for the moment, and the presidential election year will make bipartisan agreement more difficult to achieve. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been sitting on hundreds of bills passed by the Democratic-led House.
Evans declined to speculate about prospects in the upper chamber. “That’s an independent body from the House,” he said.
Even if the federal legislation doesn’t pass soon, 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.