Last year, I applied to my first Law Clerk position as a law student. A few months before that I had cut off all of my chemically treated relaxed hair and left only about two inches of my natural kinky coily texture in a short afro style. As I did this big change in the middle of the pandemic, I wore it in that style and let it grow freely as I knew I didn’t have anywhere to go anyways. Circling back to the law position, as I prepared for the interview, I scrambled to braid down my newly found coils to throw a wig on. The fact that I was more concerned with changing my natural appearance instead of focusing on the skills making me qualified for this position is a sad but an unfortunate reality for not just myself, but many other black men and women in work and school environments.
In a recent case on race discrimination, EEOC v. Catastrophe Management (CMS), in 2010, a woman had her job offer rescinded because she wore her hair in dreadlocks and could become “messy” in the future. In 2016, 11th Circuit stated that the EEOC failed to show “that dreadlocks are an immutable characteristic of black persons.” The court claimed that for locks to be deemed a racial characteristic, the plaintiffs (EEOC) would have to allege that locks were not a function of personal choice, but rather all/or only individuals who are of African descent have locks or are born with them. The 11th Circuit’s decision has only amplified the federal precedent in depriving qualified black persons of employment opportunities. With the 11th Circuit’s dismissal of the EEOC’s grooming code, this ruling continues to cover employers from Title VII liability even where they may have engaged in textbook intentional race discrimination.
It may be surprising to some to hear that natural hair styles are not protected by law. Only in the past few years have efforts been made in protecting black women from hair discrimination. The CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), which was first introduced in California in 2019, prohibits discrimination based on natural hair style and texture. Different variations of the bill have been introduced on 29 states, as well as being passed in 7 states including: California, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Colorado, and Maryland.
In the State of Florida, a variation of the CROWN Act bill was introduced on March 2, 2021 to be enacted into law on July 1, 2021 by State Senator Bracy. The bill was first introduced in the Tallahassee legislative session last year, but unfortunately the bill did not go far. With this new wave of momentum due to a racially tense summer that led many Fortune 500 companies and other organizations vowing to become more cultural and racially sensitive; Let’s see if it will go all the way this time around.
In a study conducted by Dove in 2019, black women’s hair was 3.4x more likely to be perceived as unprofessional in the workplace, as well as 80% agree with the statement: “I have to change my hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.”
Now more than ever, employers must look at these new laws and ensure that their handbooks and work policies are non-discriminatory against certain hairstyles such as cornrows, braids, twists or dreadlocks, or face potential liability. It’s time to wear your crown with confidence knowing that at least now you may have legal protections if you are discriminated against in the workplace.
Leah Le’Vell is currently a law student in Florida. She has previously served as a Presidential Appointee at different levels in government such as at the White House and Department of Veterans Affairs.