Last month, Governor Newsom signed a landmark anti-discrimination bill into law. This law takes aim at grooming policies that discriminate on the basis of race through restrictions against types of hairstyles.
Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), employers cannot engage in certain employment actions, such as hiring, firing, promoting, or disciplining, on the basis of protected characteristics, including race. One might think that this prohibits discrimination based on hair styles that are historically associated with race. Not necessarily. FEHA does not say so explicitly, California courts have not considered the issue, and some federal courts have held the opposite. SB 188, which goes into effect at the start of 2020, seeks to clarify that race discrimination includes hair-based discrimination.
In enacting SB 188, the California Legislature was concerned by the story of New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson, who was forced to choose either to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a match. The Legislature also took note of Rafael Scott and Sheldon Lyke, two African-American men who were turned away from a Chicago nightclub because of their braided hair styles. Even outside the employment context, the Legislature noted in the findings section of SB 188, “hair remains a rampant source of racial discrimination with serious economic and health consequences, especially for Black individuals.”
However, leading federal court decisions have held that hair-based discrimination does not implicate the federal Title VII to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Federal courts have generally held that federal civil rights applies only to “immutable” characteristics—characteristics a person is born with and cannot control. A New York federal court relied on this notion to rule that an American Airlines grooming policy prohibiting braided hairstyles did not discriminate on the basis of race. Rogers v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 527 F. Supp. 229, 232 (S.D. N.Y. 1981). In the court’s view, the policy did not discriminate on the basis of race because American Airlines employees could choose whether or not to braid their hair.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reached a similar conclusion in EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, 852 F.3d 1018 (11th Cir. 2011) (“Catastrophe”). In that case, an employer rescinded an employment offer when it learned the prospective employee styled her hair in dreadlocks. According to the employer, the dreadlocks violated the company’s grooming policy, which required employees “to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards.” Again relying on the idea that hair styles are not immutable traits, the 11th Circuit determined that the employer’s grooming policy was not discriminatory.
Some federal decisions have come out the other way. In Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance, Inc., 538 F.2d 164 (7th Cir. 1976) (“Jenkins”), an employee alleged that she was subject to racial discrimination because she wore an afro. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this allegation sufficiently expressed an actionable discrimination claim. But the Eleventh Circuit distinguished this case, reading it to hold that African-American hair texture is an immutable characteristic while African-American hair styles are not; the employee in Jenkins wore a “natural afro,” while the employee in Catastrophe chose to wear braids.
The California Legislature passed SB 188 out of concern that state courts looking to the federal courts for guidance would agree with the Catastrophe court. To ensure there would be no confusion, the Legislature included in the section of findings and declarations, “The courts do not understand that afros are not the only natural presentation of Black hair. Black hair can also be naturally presented in braids, twists, and locks.”
In practical terms, SB 188 adds two subsections to FEHA clarifying that “Race” includes traits historically associated with race, including hair texture and protective hairstyles. The law also adds two new subjections to Section 212.1 of the Education Code to the same effect.
Two weeks after California passed SB 188, New York followed suit with a similar law. Perhaps other states will follow.
If you are facing racial discrimination in the workplace based on your hair style, contact Bryan Schwartz Law today.