The impact of hair discrimination cannot be overstated. Schools and workplaces across the country often enforce dress codes and grooming policies that prohibit natural hairstyles such as afros, braids, bantu knots, and locs. These policies criminalize natural hair and are used to justify the removal of Black children from classrooms and adults from their employment. Hair discrimination is an undue burden that not only polices Black identity, but upholds white supremacy. With no nationwide legal protections against hair discrimination, Black people are either left to risk facing consequences at school or work for their natural hair or forced to invest time and money into conforming to Eurocentric professionalism and beauty standards.
This is what the CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” is seeking to change. The legislation demands protection against race-based hair discrimination based on hair textures and protective styles in the workplace and in K-12 public and charter schools. The Legal Defense Fund (LDF) is a proud member of the CROWN Coalition, a group of 80-plus community and advocacy organizations that have done significant work to drive real, actionable change, pushing for the passage of the CROWN Act in all 50 states and to end hair discrimination.
Since its creation in 2019 by Dove and the CROWN Coalition, LDF has asserted itself as a dedicated supporter and one of the leading litigators fighting for protections against hair discrimination. In part due to LDF’s efforts alongside other supporters of the CROWN Act, 13 states (as of June 2021), including California, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado, Washington, Maryland, Connecticut, New Mexico, Delaware, Nevada, Nebraska and Oregon, as well as 28 municipalities have signed The CROWN Act or legislation inspired by The CROWN Act into law. Thirty additional states have pre-filed, filed, or intend to introduce the legislation. In March 2021, Federal legislation was reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 2116) by Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and in the U.S. Senate (S. 888) by Senator Cory Booker.
On the ground, LDF has litigated on behalf of multiple clients in CROWN Act cases, seeking to provide support for those who have been left helpless at the hands of hair discrimination. In 2016, LDF filed an amicus brief on behalf of Chastity C. Jones, who was denied employment after refusing to cut her dreadlocks. Alongside the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center and Professors D. Wendy Greene and Angela Onwuachi-Willig, LDF’s brief argued in support of a petition for rehearing en banc in this case, which considers whether Title VII’s broad mandate to purge the workplace of racial discrimination reaches a policy that trades on Eurocentric conventions of beauty and professionalism. Two years later, LDF petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to review the case, seeking to uproot this discriminatory employment practice and false racial stereotype that that locs will become messy and are therefore unprofessional. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court declined to review.
In May 2020, filed a lawsuit against Barbers Hill Independent School District (BHISD) in Houston, Texas challenging its hair policy on the basis of race and gender discrimination and First Amendment protections. When BHISD changed its dress and grooming code to include a hair length requirement that targeted two Black students, De’Andre Arnold and K.B. Bradford, the lawsuit asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to require BHISD to immediately reinstate the suspended students and rescind its discriminatory hair policy. LDF continued to fight for equal treatment through 2021, filing an amended complaint in March and testifying at a Texas Legislature Hearing in April in support of the CROWN Act.
These cases represent LDF’s ongoing fight to ensure a future where hair discrimination isn’t looked upon as lightly as asking someone to cut their hair. Black hair represents an expression of identity and culture, and the efforts to suppress this notion and enforce conformity to Eurocentric professionalism and beauty standards. LDF is committed to standing tall in the face of antiquated and discriminatory ways of thinking and maintaining the history of profound symbolism and deep emotional significance of cornrows, locs, twists, afros, bantu knots.
As a result of their ongoing efforts, the Crown Act-–or legislation inspired by it—has been signed into law by several states and municipalities since July 2021.
However, while their impact in the courts and state governing bodies are significant, LDF’s media team worked just as tirelessly to ensure that their work did not go unnoticed. Across social channels, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, content related to the Crown Act garnered millions of shares cumulatively, which significantly rose the profile and awareness of #TheCrownAct. Celebrities including Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, Lupita Nyong'o, Kerry Washington, Tracee Ellis Ross, Angela Bassett, Thandiwe Newton, Viola Davis shared LDF’s Crown Act efforts on their channels, bringing the campaign’s reach to 61 million-plus followers.
It’s these efforts that make all the difference in campaigns like the Crown Act. While the dedication and expertise of LDF’s litigators can effect change on the ground, its through efforts in raising awareness in communities that aren’t affected by hair discrimination that are just as important. The unfortunate truth of the world in which we live is that there is never going to be any shortage of social justice causes and initiatives that will fill people’s minds and wreak havoc on affected communities. However, with the Crown Act, LDF managed to effectively generate an impact and improve the lives of people like Chastity, De’Andre, and K.B., while also spreading the word of injustices and laying a foundation for a future in which hair discrimination becomes a thing of the past.