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Congress Takes a Step Towards Catching up with New Jersey on Hairstyle Discrimination

Numerous states around the country have taken action to protect workers from discrimination on the basis of certain hairstyles that have a close connection to race or national origin. Many states have titled these bills the Create a Respectful and Open Workspace for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN Act. New Jersey passed its CROWN Act, which amended the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), in late 2019. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not specifically mention hairstyle discrimination as a form of race discrimination. On March 18, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a federal CROWN Act that will prohibit hairstyle discrimination nationwide if it becomes law. The U.S. Senate received the bill on March 22. If your employer has policies regarding appearance that conflict with your hairstyle, you may have a hairstyle discrimination claim. To learn more, reach out to a New Jersey employment lawyer as soon as possible.

Many employers have maintained policies regarding appearance that have particularly affected African-American workers and others with African ancestry. Policies that require a “professional” appearance often bar many hairstyles commonly associated with this group, including both natural and protective hairstyles. Complying with these workplace policies may require many employees to use expensive treatments to straighten their hair. Over time, these treatments can cause serious damage.

New Jersey’s CROWN Act amended the NJLAD’s definition of “race” to include “hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles,” along with other “traits historically associated with race.” The bill defined “protective hairstyles” to include “braids, locks, and twists.” Under New Jersey law, discrimination on the basis of hairstyles historically associated with race now constitutes race discrimination.

Title VII also prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, but it does not define the term in as much depth as the NJLAD. A few federal courts have ruled on whether hairstyle discrimination may already violate Title VII, with mixed results. In 1976, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Title VII allows a claim for race discrimination allegedly because of the plaintiff’s “Afro hair style.”

The Eleventh Circuit reached the opposite conclusion in 2016. It ruled against a woman who alleged that her employer discriminated against her on the basis of race by firing her “pursuant to its race-neutral grooming policy when she refused to cut off her dreadlocks.” The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2018, leaving a circuit split in place.

H.R. 2116 uses a slightly different title, the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act of 2022. Section 2 finds that society has used hairstyle and hair texture “in conjunction with skin color” as a means of categorizing people by race, and that hairstyle and hair texture continue to form the basis of many discriminatory acts and policies. The bill prohibits hairstyle discrimination in federally-assisted programs, housing, public accommodations, and employment.

Section 6, which addresses employment, expands the list of hairstyles to include “hairstyle[s] in which hair is tightly coiled or tightly curled, locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, and Afros.” It does not directly amend Title VII, but it does state that the same enforcement mechanisms may be used.

The employment lawyers at the Resnick Law Group represent New Jersey and New York employees and job seekers in claims for race discrimination and other unlawful acts in the workplace. To schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our team, please contact us today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.

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