California and New York State recently passed laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against job applicants and employees because of their natural hairstyles, including braids, dreadlocks, and twists.

California’s CROWN Act

California’s new law, the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), won unanimous votes in both the state Senate and Assembly. Governor Newsom signed it into law on July 3, 2019, and it will go into effect at the beginning of 2020. California was the first state to enact such a law. New York State became the second, soon after. Cities may also adopt similar laws, with New York City already having done so earlier this year.

The Problem with Race-Neutral Grooming Policies

The CROWN Act contains a section describing the rationales for the law: Historically, physical traits associated with “blackness” were seen as inferior, while European features were associated with professionalism. Today, natural hair still remains a source of racial discrimination.

Even when workplace grooming policies purport to be race-neutral, if they “enforce a Eurocentric image of professionalism” they will have a disparate impact — a disproportionately negative effect — on Black employees.

Federal courts have already held that Title VII prohibits discrimination against employees who wear Afros. California found that this did not go far enough because it didn’t include other forms of natural hairstyles. The CROWN Act extends the prohibition against racial discrimination to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles” such as braids, twists, and locks (also called dreadlocks, dreads, or locs).

New York State’s Law Prohibiting Race Discrimination Based on Natural Hair or Hairstyles

New York State passed a law similar to California’s on July 12, 2019. New York’s law prohibits discrimination against “traits historically associated with race,” which include “hair texture and protective hairstyles.” Like California, New York specifies that protective hairstyles include, but are not limited to, braids, locks, and twists.

New York City’s Guidance on Racial Discrimination on the Basis of Hair

New York and California may have been the first states to enact legislation prohibiting discrimination against employees with natural hair, but New York City addressed the issue a few months earlier. In February of this year, New York City’s Commission on Human Rights issued new legal enforcement guidance affirming “that grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or otherwise restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people generally violate the [city’s] anti-discrimination provisions.” Black New Yorkers have “the right to maintain natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”

New Jersey May Be Next

If a proposed bill in New Jersey passes, it will have much the same effect as the new laws in California and New York. Like the other laws, it would prohibit discrimination on the basis of hair not only in the workplace but also in schools and housing, and it was an incident involving a student that prompted New Jersey legislators to take action after a high school wrestler was ordered to cut off his dreadlocks on the spot or forfeit his match.

What These Laws Mean for Employers

Employers in California, New York State, and New York City need to make sure that their dress and grooming policies do not prohibit natural or protective hairstyles. Policies should not discriminate on the basis in race in both the way they are worded and in the way they are applied.

Although there is no national law against discrimination on the basis of natural hair — last year, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving discrimination against people wearing dreadlocks — employers in states that haven’t (yet) addressed the hair-discrimination issue would be wise to review their policies and recruitment practices to make sure they are inclusive. Ablin Law can help. To learn more, contact us today.

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