By Tamar Alexanian
Associate Editor, Vol. 25
In December of 2018, black New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson was forced to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his wrestling match. Although Johnson was wearing his usual headgear and covering his head, the referee claimed that Johnson’s dreadlocks were not in compliance with state rules. After being given approximately ninety seconds to make this decision, Johnson had his dreadlocks cut by a white athletic trainer. The incident, captured on video, went viral and resulted in an investigation by the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights.
Unfortunately, instances of hair discrimination are far from uncommon. For example, in November of 2019, Gabrielle Union was fired from her position as a judge on America’s Got Talent for wearing hairstyles that were “too Black,” despite repeatedly being referred to as the audience’s favorite judge. Further, in the spring of 2019, seventeen-year-old Kerion Washington was denied a job at Six Flags Over Texas because of his “extreme” dreadlocks. This same Six Flags location had previously refused to hire sixteen-year-old Kobe Pierce unless he agreed to cut his long single braid. In October of 2019, Pennsylvania State University defended football player Jonathan Sutherland who received a letter from an alumnus calling his dreadlocks “awful” and “disgusting.” In August of 2018, a private Christian school in Florida turned six-year-old Clinton Stanley Jr. away from his first day of class because of his dreadlocks. In 2010, Chastity Jones was offered a job with a management solutions company in Alabama; when Jones refused to not wear her hair in dreadlocks, her offer was rescinded. The list goes on.
These instances of discrimination have very real effects on the black community. In 2019, the Crown Coalition, in partnership with Dove, conducted a study about “how workplace bias and corporate grooming policies unfairly impact Black women.” According to the study, black women’s hair is 3.4 times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional than white women’s hair. Further, the study noted that black women are 30 percent more likely to be made aware of a formal workplace appearance policy and are 50 percent more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair. These findings only give others a glimpse into the hair discrimination that black people face.
Hair discrimination in the United States is not new. For example, in the 1700s, Spanish colonial governor Don Estebon Miro enacted the Tignon Laws, requiring Creole women of color to wear a tignon (scarf) to cover their hair. However, a landmark 1976 case in the Seventh Circuit seemed to promise some change. In Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance, Beverly Jenkins won when the court determined that Afros were protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Jenkins had been told that she “could never represent” her employer because of her Afro. Unfortunately, despite this case, federal courts have consistently excluded protecting individuals against hair discrimination because hairstyles are considered “a characteristic that can be changed.”
2019 was a historical legislative year for fighting hair discrimination. Exactly one year after Johnson was forced to cut his hair, Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey signed a law making it illegal to discriminate against people based on hairstyles associated with race, including braids, locks, and twists. The law – called “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act,” or the CROWN Act – makes it illegal to target people at work, school, or in other public spaces based on hair texture or type. A first violation of the CROWN Act may result in a $10,000 fine. The maximum penalty for a second violation within a five-year period is $25,000. Finally, a third violation within seven years would result in a maximum fine of $50,000.
However, New Jersey was not the first state to implement hair discrimination legislation. Instead, California signed the country’s first CROWN Act into law on July 3, 2019. Nine days later, New York signed a similar CROWN Act. Cities and counties including Montgomery County, Maryland; New York, New York; and Cincinnati, Ohio have followed implemented similar legislative measures. Further, according to the Crown Coalition, a number of states – including Michigan, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, and Kentucky – are considering passing similar legislation.
The CROWN Act is not just making waves on the local and state levels. On December 6, 2019, Senator Cory Booker introduced a federal CROWN Act bill to ban discrimination based on hair textures and style. Representative Cedric Richmond (D-La.) introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives. Representative Richmond was joined by Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif
While we should celebrate the legislative victories of 2019, it’s important to keep working to end implicit and explicit discrimination, both in ourselves and in others. As the ACLU of New Jersey tweeted in support of wrestler Andrew Johnson, “This is not about hair. This is about race. How many different ways will people try to exclude Black people from public life without having to declare their bigotry?”
 Meghan Keneally, High School Wrestler Who Was Forced To Cut His Dreadlocks Displayed “Character,” His Parents Say, ABC News (December 25, 2018), https://abcnews.go.com/US/high-school-wrestler-forced-cut-dreadlocks-displayed-character/story?id=60001058.
 Mariel Padilla, New Jersey Is Third State to Ban Discrimination Based on Hair, NY Times (December 20, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/us/nj-hair-discrimination.html.
 Shalwah Evans, Cory Booker Officially Joins The Fight Against Black Hair Discrimination, Essence (December 5, 2019), https://www.essence.com/beauty/beauty-news/cory-booker-joins-fight-against-hair-discrimination/.
 Shalwah Evans, A Texas Teen’s Dispute With Six Flags’ Hair Policy Reinforces the Need For The CROWN Act, Essence (July 10, 2019), https://www.essence.com/beauty/six-flags-hair-policy-reinforces-need-for-crown-act/.
 Jacey Fortin, Penn State Defends Football Player Whose Dreadlocks Were Insulted, NY Times (October 9, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/09/sports/penn-state-racist-letter-dreadlocks.html.
 N’dea Yancey-Bragg, Florida School Receiving Death Threats After Turning Awa Six-Year-Old With Dreadlocks, USA Today (August 16, 2018), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/08/16/florida-school-faces-backlash-rejecting-6-year-old-dreadlocks/1010132002/.
 Brooklyn White, Supreme Court Decides to Not Hear Lawsuit From Woman Who Lost a Job Offer Over Locs Hairstyle, Teen Vogue (May 24, 2018), https://www.teenvogue.com/story/supreme-court-will-not-hear-locs-workplace-lawsuit.
 Jameelah Nasheed, A Brief History of Black Hair, Politics, and Discrimination, Teen Vogue (August 9, 2019), https://www.teenvogue.com/story/a-brief-history-of-black-hair-politics-and-discrimination.
 CROWN Act Updates, The Crown Act, https://www.thecrownact.com/crown-updates (last visited January 14, 2020).
 Padilla, supra note 4.
 Id. (Padilla)
 Nasheed, supra note 14.
 Padilla, supra note 4.
 Marina Pitofsky, Booker Unveils Legislation for Federal Bill to Ban Discrimination Against Natural Hair, The Hill (December 6, 2019), https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/473426-bookers-unveils-legislation-for-federal-bill-to-ban-discrimination-against.
 ACLU of New Jersey (@ACLUNJ), Twitter (Dec. 21, 2018, 12:52 PM), https://twitter.com/ACLUNJ/status/1076173627475853314?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1076173627475853314&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.teenvogue.com%2Fstory%2Fa-brief-history-of-black-hair-politics-and-discrimination.