On July 3, 2019, California became the first state to pass the Crown Act, which updates the definition of “race” in the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the California Education Code to be “inclusive of traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” The California CROWN Act prevents enforcement of grooming policies that claim to be race neutral, but in reality have a disproportionate negative impact on people of color. California’s CROWN Act became effective January 1, 2020.
The New York City Commission on Human Rights adopted guidelines under which it can impose a penalty on those who harass, demote, or fire individuals because of their hair. The new guidelines describe the following hairstyles as not to be subjected to discrimination: “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as loss, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”
The guidance advises employers that requirements around “maintaining a work appropriate appearance” are acceptable, but warns that policies “that ban, limit, or otherwise restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people generally violate the NYCHRL’s anti-discrimination provisions.” Further, facially neutral grooming policies may also violate city law if an employer enforces an ostensibly neutral policy only against black employees. These guidelines became effective in February 2019.
On July 12, 2019, the State of New York solidified the NYC Commission on Human Rights Legal Enforcement Guidance on Race Discrimination on the Basis of Hair and became the second state to pass its own CROWN Act.
On December 19, 2019, New Jersey became the third state to enact an anti-discrimination law to “protect people of color facing discrimination based on their hairstyle.” New Jersey’s CROWN Act amends the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination so that the term “race” includes “traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, hair type and protective hairstyles.” In signing this legislation into law, Governor Phil Murphy stated that “[n]o one should be made to feel uncomfortable or be discriminated against because of their natural hair.”
Twenty-two additional states—Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—are considering enacting their own version of the CROWN Act.
On December 5, 2019, U.S. Senator Cory Booker introduced the CROWN Act of 2019 on the federal level to prohibit discrimination based on natural and protective hairstyles associated with people of African descent, including hair that is tightly coiled or tightly curled, locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, and Afros. Under the federal CROWN Act, hair discrimination is a prohibited form of racial or national origin discrimination.
Is hair discrimination race discrimination? Maybe. As of February 2020, it is in three states: California, New York, and New Jersey. In addition, there is a strong movement to enact the CROWN Act in 22 more states and federally. Implementation and enforcement of the CROWN Act will force employers and schools across the United States to take a closer look at their facially neutral grooming and appearance policies and their disparate impact on African Americans and other minorities.