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California is the First State to Ban Discrimination Based on a Person’s Natural Hair

Author: Natasha K. Zaslove

Guest Editor: Aydin Emami

September 11, 2019 10:00am

California Governor, Gavin Newsom has signed into law SB 188, which protects employees from discrimination based on natural hair and hairstyles associated with race. SB 188, also known as the CROWN Act, is intended to create a respectful and open workplace for natural hair. On April 22, 2019, the California State Senate unanimously passed SB 188. On June 27, 2019, the California State Assembly unanimously passed the bill. On July 3, 2019, Governor Newsom signed the bill into law.

The new law, which takes effect January 1, 2020, prohibits the enforcement of grooming policies which disproportionately affect people of color, particularly black people. The law does so by expanding the definition of race to include traits historically associated with race, including “hair texture and protective hairstyles.” Under the plain language of the CROWN Act, “’protective hairstyles’ includes, but is not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.”

According to Los Angeles Democratic Senator, Holly J. Mitchell, who introduced the bill, the law is intended to encourage schools and businesses to develop grooming and appearance policies that foster inclusion and diversity. Senator Mitchell described the bill’s purpose as twofold: to dispel myths about black hair, its texture and the black hair experience, and to challenge what constitutes “professionalism” in the workplace. According to SB 188, “professionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.” (SB 188, Section 1(b).)

The preamble for SB 188 restates California equal protection policies under existing law, including the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the purpose of which is “to afford all persons in public schools, regardless of their disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other specified characteristic, equal rights and opportunities in the educational institutions of the state, and states the purpose of related existing law is to prohibit acts that are contrary to policy and to provide remedies therefor.”

The stated intent of the law is to “provide the definition of race for these purposes also include traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles, and would define protective hairstyles for purposes of these provisions.”

According to Governor Newsom, the need for protection entered the national political consciousness when a news of a referee who forced a black wrestler for a New Jersey high school to cut his dreadlocks, or forfeit his match received nationwide media coverage. “That indignity forced the student to choose whether to ‘lose an athletic competition or lose his identity,’” a July 3, 2019 Los Angeles Times article quoting Governor Newsom.

The CROWN Act has already had an influence in other regions. New York City officially banned natural hair discrimination in February, saying hairstyles are protected under the city’s existing anti-discrimination laws, because policing black hair is a form of pervasive racism and bias. Lawmakers in New York and New Jersey also proposed legislation modeled after the CROWN Act in June.

SB 188 amends Section 212.1 of the Education Code, as well as Section 12926 of the Government Code to include “protective hairstyles” and the term’s definition as including, but not limited to, braids, locks and twists.

The bill applies to public schools, private employers with five or more employees, and public employers. It excludes religious associations and nonprofit organizations.

Takeaway

Existing policies regarding hair and grooming should be reviewed to ensure they comport with the CROWN Act. Any policies regarding hair and grooming which could infringe on the expansion of the equal protection laws to include, “protective hairstyles” should be carefully considered for potential legal ramifications before implementation.

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