Oregon Passes CROWN Act to Ban Discrimination Based on Hairstyles

Oregon is the 12th state to pass the CROWN Act, which bans discrimination based on physical characteristics historically associated with race — such as hair texture and protective hairstyles.

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Oregon has joined the rapidly growing number of states and cities that have banned discrimination based on hair type and styles, including braids, locs and twists.

The Beaver state’s prohibition against hair discrimination goes into effect on January 1, 2022 and applies to public and private employers with one or more employees, including educational settings.

Unlawful workplace discrimination has been expanded to include “physical characteristics that are historically associated with race, including but not limited to natural hair, hair texture, hair type and protective hairstyles.” Protective hairstyles include braids, locs, and twists, according to the state statute.

The decision makes Oregon one of 13 states that have enacted “CROWN Act” laws, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” Act (CROWN Act) addresses grooming policies in workplaces and schools that have a disparate impact on African Americans.

Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill into law on June 11.

The CROWN Act movement

Oregon’s adoption of the measure is part of a movement that emerged after several incidents involving the way many African Americans style their hair.

In one highly publicized incident, an African American high school wrestler in New Jersey had to cut his long dreadlocks right before a meet in order to participate. In another incident, a Black teenage volleyball player at a Portland, Oregon high school was told to cut beads from her hair so that she could take part in the game.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also filed a lawsuit in 2013 against an Alabama company that rescinded a job offer to a woman over her dreadlocks. The African American woman refused to restyle her hair; the company then said the hairstyle violated its grooming policy.

The federal trial court dismissed the EEOC’s claim. The court ruled that because you can change a hairstyle, it is not an immutable characteristic the federal law protects. A federal appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision. The appellate court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects persons in covered categories with respect to immutable characteristics such as skin color, but not their cultural practices. The Supreme Court refused to review the case.

“We have to question: Who determines what is and what is not ‘professional’ or ‘acceptable’ hair?” Rep. Janelle Bynum, the chief sponsor of the Oregon bill, said in a statement.

“Hair discrimination is steeped in racism and negatively impacts Black Americans simply trying to go about their day. Anti-Black hair sentiment has no place anywhere and today we draw that line in the state of Oregon,” Bynum continued.

“We have to question: Who determines what is and what is not ‘professional’ or ‘acceptable’ hair?”

The start of the movement

A 2019 research study by beauty brand Dove made several findings, including that:

  1. Black women are 50% more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair
  2. 80% of black women believe they have to change their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office
  3. People are 3 times more likely to perceive Black women’s hair as unprofessional

The incidents and research findings spurred, Dove, the National Urban League, the Western Center on Law & Policy, and several others to found the CROWN Coalition. The group champions CROWN Act laws across the country. CROWN Act legislation was first introduced in 2019.

Proponents of the CROWN Act say the laws avoid policies that seem to be neutral but disproportionately affect African Americans. Opponents question whether government action is necessary to protect hairstyles. They also say that other ethnic groups have experienced workplace discrimination over their hairstyles.

State and city action on the CROWN Act

Thirteen states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, Virginia, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Washington — have passed CROWN Act legislation, according to the NAACP.

California was the first state to enact a CROWN Act. The 2020 Golden State law bans workplace policies that forbid hairstyles “historically associated with race” as a type of racial discrimination.

Some localities have also grappled with the issue of hair discrimination. About 28 municipalities have enacted the CROWN Act or similar legislation. Montgomery County in Maryland was the first U.S. county to approve similar legislation in February 2020. The Maryland county law bans discrimination based on hairstyles such as braids, locs, afros, curls, and twists. Later that year, the Akron City Council approved legislation making discrimination based on hair illegal. The New Orleans City Council and officials in Broward County, Florida also banned hair discrimination in 2020.

Federal action on the CROWN Act

The U.S. House of Representatives approved the CROWN Act last year, but it did not receive much consideration in the U.S. Senate. The bill was reintroduced in both the House and Senate in March 2021.

If the CROWN Act was enacted federally, it would ban discrimination based on hairstyle or texture “if that hair texture or that hairstyle is commonly associated with a particular race or natural origin.”

The bill specifically recognizes Afros, Bantu knots, braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, and twists as hairstyles that Black men and women predominately wear.

Legal experts dispute that there is specific language in Title VII that bans hair discrimination. However, the EEOC has brought charges against employers alleging such discrimination. In addition to the 2013 lawsuit, the EEOC settled a lawsuit in February 2021 against a Las Vegas security company accusing it of violating federal law by not allowing a Black applicant to apply for a job because of her hairstyle.

Workplace grooming policies

Legal experts recommend that employers operating in a state or city that has banned hair discrimination revise their grooming policies. However, employers should be aware that they can enact grooming and dress standards for safety reasons.

Religious clothing

In addition to expanding discrimination laws to protect hairstyles, Oregon lawmakers also approved a measure over religious garb. Public school districts must allow students to wear religious clothing during interscholastic activities if the student has a “sincerely held religious belief” regarding such clothing. However, the policy must be consistent with safety and health requirements, according to the statue.

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