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February 02, 2024

Midyear 2024: Experts to examine violations of the Crown Act

Experts in the litigation around the Crown Act say there is still work to do at the local, state and federal levels to advance the legislation.

Professor D. Wendy Greene, director of the Center for Law, Policy & Social Action at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, said that although 24 states and 40 municipalities have passed Crown Act legislation and federal legislation has been passed twice by the U.S. House of Representatives, it has stalled in the Senate. “So, there still isn’t a comprehensive federal bill that makes clear that natural hair discrimination is race discrimination,” she said.

Greene will be among the panelists for the program, “The CROWN ACT Goes to Court,” to be held Saturday, Feb. 3, at 9 a.m., at the ABA Midyear Meeting. They plan to discuss the current fight to recognize discrimination against African descendants’ natural hairstyles as a form of racial injustice.

Moderator Kimberly Norwood, the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, added that they will explore the historical and legal context and highlight some key reforms that address race-based hair discrimination, some of which includes civil rights litigation, enforcement guidance, policy and legislation.

Recent cases involving students and school administrators reveal that a student’s mental health can be overlooked when facing suspension or isolation because of their hair.

“These ways in which we are segregating and pointing the finger and belittling and oppressing these kids is causing all of this trauma that people are not aware of,” Norwood said. “I really would like for people to get that this is not just a hairstyle and it’s not just about changing it and going on with your life; we’re talking about culture, we’re talking about race and we’re talking about mental health in lots of ways, too.”

The emotional distress and embarrassment caused by school officials enforcing grooming policies that are discriminatory and prohibit natural expressions and hairstyles such as locs, braids, afros and twists could be with a person the rest of their lives.

Norwood said “this is different from someone who says, ‘I could wear my hair purple if I want, I could wear pink hair.’

“The distinction is this is not about a hairstyle,” she said. “It’s way more than that.”

Greene agreed. “It’s connecting it to racial, ethnic and cultural identity in ways in which nonhuman hair color is not the case,” she said. “My point is to really drive home it is about it being racial discrimination.”

Also on the panel will be Patricia Okonta, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Steven F. Stapleton, a member of Clark Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The program is sponsored by the Section of State and Local Government Law.

At the 2020 Annual Meeting, the ABA adopted Resolution 100B, which endorses the Crown Act and encourages lawyers and those in the legal profession to implement educational trainings that deal with implicit bias.