Employers and educators should be aware that on July 3, 2019, California became the first state to explicitly ban discrimination in employment and education based on natural Black hairstyles. Several steps may need to be taken before the new law goes into effect on January 1, 2020.

The Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act (the “CROWN Act”) amends both the Education Code and the Government Code to prohibit racial discrimination on the basis of traits historically associated with race, “including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” For those unfamiliar with the term, the CROWN Act defines protective hairstyles as including, but not limited to, braids, locks (aka locs and dreadlocks), and twists.

In enacting the legislation, the legislature recognized that, “[t]he history of our nation is riddled with laws and societal norms that equated ‘blackness,’ and the associated physical traits, for example, dark skin, kinky and curly hair to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment.” It further recognized that “professionalism” has been “closely linked to European features and mannerisms,” and natural Black hairstyles (afros, braids, dreadlocks, etc.) have been used as a proxy for race, resulting in race discrimination when these hairstyles are prohibited in schools and the workplace. The bill goes on to state, “[a]cting in accordance with the constitutional values of fairness, equity, and opportunity for all, the Legislature recognizes that continuing to enforce a Eurocentric image of professionalism through purportedly race-neutral grooming policies that disparately impact Black individuals and exclude them from some workplaces is in direct opposition to equity and opportunity for all.”

In an editorial on the issue, Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the bill, recalled being told that her protective hairstyle could hurt her chance of being elected. She also recalled the incident earlier this year in which a high school wrestler was forced to shave off his locks in order to compete in a wrestling match.

The CROWN Act aims to eliminate these types of biases in California. To prepare before the January 1, 2020 enactment, employers and schools should review and revise current dress code and grooming policies to ensure compliance with the new law. Schools are advised to change their policies for the 2019-2020 school year so they do not need to implement a change mid-year. Training on the new law is recommended so that anyone charged with enforcing a dress code or grooming policy understands which hairstyles cannot be banned.