Dec 20, 2020 - Economy & Business

Wrapped, dreads or natural: Hair-rights fight moves to states

Attendees clap during a press conference at the Maryland House Office Building in Annapolis, Maryland, March 6, 2020, in advance of a bill fighting hair discrimination.
Advocates in Annapolis, Maryland, celebrate the advancement of an anti-hair discrimination measure. Photo: Evelyn Hockstein for the Washington Post via Getty Images

States are the new battleground in the growing national movement to protect people of color from hairstyle discrimination.

Driving the news: Advocates are taking the fight local as legislation in Congress has stalled, gaining state-by-state workplace and school rights for people who wear Afros, braids, cornrows, dreadlocks and headwraps.

The big picture: Seven states have passed hair anti-discrimination laws since 2019, and at least five more will consider bills next year.

  • Nationwide demonstrations this year over systemic racism and new commitments by corporations and universities to rethink policies may work in their favor.

Details: High-profile cases of people of color being forced to change hairstyles garnered outrage this year.

  • In August, a federal judge in Texas blocked a school district from forcing a Black teenager to cut his dreadlocks according to the district's dress code.
  • In 2018, a Black high school wrestler in New Jersey was ordered to cut his dreadlocks at a match or forfeit. The referee in the case was later suspended for two years.
  • That same year, an Albuquerque teacher allegedly cut a portion of a Navajo female student's hair in class, drawing anger from the Navajo Nation. The ACLU later filed a lawsuit against the district.

Between the lines: Black women, especially, are disproportionately likely to be sent home from work because of their hair, according to a 2019 Dove survey.

  • 80% of Black women in that survey say they've changed their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.

Flashback: A group of women attending the 2018 ESSENCE Festival met and later formed the CROWN Coalition to fight hair discrimination nationwide. Dove, owned by London-based Unilever, signed on as a founding member. The coalition grew to 70 groups.

  • CROWN stands for "Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair."
  • Esi Eggleston Bracey, Unilever's North American executive vice president and COO of personal care, said Dove employees were heartbroken over news stories on hair discrimination.

Where it stands: The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill this year prohibiting discrimination based on a person's hair texture or hairstyle if that style is associated with a particular race or national origin, but the measure stalled in the Senate.

  • California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Washington and Colorado have passed anti-hair discrimination state laws since 2019.
  • Lawmakers in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Texas and Tennessee are pushing for similar state laws in their upcoming sessions.
  • More than a dozen states have seen anti-hair discrimination bills fail to pass, but advocates say they will keep pressing.

What they’re saying: "Hair is not protected under some civil rights laws because it's believed you can change your hair," said Adjoa B. Asamoah, legislative strategist for the CROWN Coalition. "But why should you?"

  • New York State Rep. Tremaine Wright, who sponsored New York's law, said some Black women get passed over for jobs or promotions because their hair "didn't fit" a company's image. "This is just another form of discrimination, and we have created a movement to end it."
  • "We are committed to federal legislation, and we are not going to stop until it passes," Bracey said.

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