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California law will ban discrimination based on natural hair style

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

On July 3, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation that makes California the first state in the nation to ban racial discrimination based on natural hair.

California’s Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair (CROWN) Act, S.B. 188, addresses unfair grooming policies that have a disparate impact on women and people of color. The new law amends the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Education Code to prohibit employers and schools from enforcing purportedly “race neutral” grooming policies that disproportionately impact persons of color.

Hair associated with race. Specifically, the term “race” is defined to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” The bill defines “protective hairstyles” to include “such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.”

Under the legislation, employers will still be able to make and enforce certain policies, so long as they are valid, nondiscriminatory, and have no disparate impact; for example, employers can still require employees to secure their hair for safety or hygienic reasons.

Hair as a proxy for race. In drafting and passing the historic legislation, lawmakers declared that the “history of our nation is riddled with laws and societal norms that equated ‘blackness,’ and the associated physical traits, for example, dark skin, kinky and curly hair, to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment.” This idea also permeated societal understanding of professionalism, which “was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional,” the lawmakers found.

“Workplace dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on Black individuals as these policies are more likely to deter Black applicants and burden or punish Black employees than any other group,” according to lawmakers. “In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race, and whether they were a second class citizen, hair today remains a proxy for race,” the lawmakers declared. “Therefore, hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination.”

Although California will be the first state in the nation to protect employees from racial discrimination based on hairstyle, similar legislation has been proposed in New York and New Jersey. New York City banned hair discrimination in February.

Effective date. The CROWN Act, which is now Chapter 58, is effective January 1, 2020.