SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California could become one of the first states to outlaw racial discrimination because of hairstyles — such as braids and dreadlocks — in a move aimed at challenging long-held standards of professionalism in the workplace.
The California Senate voted 37-0 on Monday to approve a bill that would update the state’s anti-discrimination law so that the term “race” includes “traits historically associated with race.”
Federal and state laws ban discrimination based on religious hairstyles and head coverings. But federal courts have not extended those protections more broadly because of race, ruling that because hairstyle was a choice, companies could require workers to follow certain standards as a condition of employment.
Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat, said the bill was necessary to challenge “Eurocentric standards of beauty” that have dominated professional dress codes.
“And so even though African Americans were no longer explicitly excluded from the workplace, black features and mannerisms remain unacceptable,” she said.
Mitchell said these grooming policies often disproportionately affected African Americans, who would have to spend lots of money on expensive products to alter their hair.
That thinking was most recently challenged in 2010, when a black woman, Chastity Jones, successfully applied for a job at an Alabama insurance company. But the company later rescinded the job offer because Jones wore her hair in dreadlocks and refused to remove them.
At the time, the company’s grooming policy required employees “to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image.” The company’s human resources manager, who is white, told Jones dreadlocks “tend to get messy,” according to court documents.
In 2016, a federal appeals court sided with the company, ruling dreadlocks were not an unchangeable characteristic of race. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal, which allowed the ruling to stand.
But state and local governments could be changing that. Earlier this year, the New York City Human Rights Commission clarified that the city’s anti-discrimination laws do cover hairstyles. California’s proposal, if it becomes law, could prompt other states to follow.
No one spoke against the bill on Monday, but Mitchell said some people worry her proposal would result in a multitude of frivolous claims or that it could prevent companies from requiring workers to wear hairnets or other protective coverings.
“By clarifying that hair texture and hairstyles are tied to racial identity, this bill actually helps makes employers aware of traits that have been historically excluded and helps them create grooming policies foster inclusion and diversity,” Mitchell said.
The measure now heads to the state Assembly.
Adam Beam, The Associated Press