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CROWN Acts Grow as Hedge Against Black Hairstyle Discrimination

March 18, 2021, 6:24 PM

Bantu knots, braids, dreadlocks, cornrows, and afros are all traditional Black hairstyles. They’re also lightning rods for discrimination in school, on the job, and in lending and housing, prompting a wave of protective state and local legislation.

New Mexico lawmakers this week became the latest to pass a bill prohibiting discrimination based on how a person chooses to arrange or wrap their hair.

The legislation, SB 80, is a version of the anti-discrimination measure known as the CROWN Act, which has been enacted in eight states. At least 17 cities and counties including Albuquerque, N.M., have adopted similar local ordinances, according to the CROWN Act coalition. The acronym stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair.”

The measure is now headed to the desk of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. A spokeswoman, Nora Meyers Sackett, said the governor thoroughly reviews all legislation before deciding whether to sign.

“That being said, the governor certainly recognizes the critical importance of eliminating the opportunity for discrimination in our schools and this proposal aligns with the importance of New Mexico’s multiculturalism and the value we place on respect and inclusion,” she said.

“Black Americans go through so much discrimination on the job and in school,” such as “the insidious kind of, ‘Your hair is not really kept,’” said Erica Davis-Crump, co-founder of the advocacy group New Mexico Black Central Organizing Committee.

Her state’s law would be “the most inclusive so far,” by addressing race-related hair discrimination as well as headdresses of cultural or religious significance to protect the state’s indigenous people, Davis-Crump said. The text of the legislation specifically protects “braids, locs, twists, tight coils or curls, cornrows, bantu knots, afros, weaves, wigs or head wraps.”

The CROWN Act movement has been pushed along by a growing awareness of Black workers being fired or denied jobs because of their hair, she said, as well as students being punished. Among them was a New Jersey high school wrestler forced to cut his dreadlocks or else forfeit his match—an incident that helped spur Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D) support for one of the first statewide hair discrimination laws.

People facing hair-related workplace discrimination connected to their race or religion have asked courts for years to read this kind of protection into the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, but with limited success. City and state governments began addressing the matter in 2019, when New York City issued guidance on protections against hair-related racial discrimination and then California, New York state, and New Jersey enacted the nation’s first statewide hair discrimination bans.

Since then, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington state have followed suit. A similar bill is close to final passage in Delaware.

A federal version of the CROWN Act passed in the U.S. House last September but wasn’t taken up in the Senate. The proposals are expected to be reintroduced soon in the House and Senate, but the Democratic-sponsored measure would need at least 10 Republican senators to support it to escape a possible filibuster in the chamber.

The New Mexico measure bans discrimination against students at school and adds the language related to hairstyles and headdresses to the definition of racial bias in the state’s Human Rights Act. That law already bars discrimination in employment, housing, credit, and public accommodations.

Davis-Crump said she sees the governor as an advocate for anti-discrimination efforts and expects that she will sign the bill.

Possible Bipartisan Support

The state laws enacted thus far have advanced through Democratic-majority legislatures, but often with broad bipartisan or nearly unanimous support. The New Mexico measure passed the Senate on a 37-0 vote and passed the House 64-1. Businesses, which could face increased litigation resulting from the laws, have offered little public opposition to them.

Nebraska’s legislature, which is officially nonpartisan but is led by members of the Republican Party, passed a version of the CROWN Act in 2020. Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) vetoed it but indicated an interest in enacting a revised version in 2021 if the legislation met certain criteria, such as accommodating businesses that need to enforce personal grooming rules for health and safety reasons.

“As written, the bill fails to provide health or safety exceptions for employers. For example, employees who work in food service or around heavy machinery are often required to wear their hair a certain length or tie back or cover their hair in order to ensure their safety, as well as the health and safety of the public,” Ricketts said in his veto statement in August 2020.

An Alabama proposal to ban hair discrimination also narrowly passed a committee vote in the GOP-majority state Senate this month and is awaiting a possible vote on the Senate floor.

Nevertheless, most of the momentum on the issue is currently in Democratic-majority legislatures and city councils, such as the Delaware measure and bills pending in Illinois and Nevada.

Similar bills also are being considered in Missouri, Nebraska, and Utah.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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