NEW YORK — New York City has a strong message for employers who ban Afros or dreadlocks: Such policies are not just racist, but also illegal. The city’s Human Rights Commission released legal guidance Monday saying prohibitions on natural hairstyles that many African-Americans wear are a form of racial discrimination.
The commission said it is already investigating seven cases of hair-based discrimination, including some in which a black worker was fired for wearing her hair down and one was told that dreadlocks are “unacceptable and unclean.”
“Policies that limit the ability to wear natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people aren’t about ‘neatness’ or ‘professionalism;’ they are about limiting the way Black people move through workplaces, public spaces and other settings,” Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn P. Malalis said in a statement.
A range of institutions and employers have come under fire in recent years for policies targeting black hairstyles, particularly dreadlocks, which are also known as locs.
The U.S. Army reportedly lifted its ban on locs for female soliders in 2017, about three years after implementing the policy. And a referee at a high school wrestling match in New Jersey caused an outcry in December when he forced a student to cut his locs or forfeit the match.
Such edicts would constitute racial discrimination under the city’s Human Rights Law because they “subject Black employees to disparate treatment,” the commission’s guidance says. It’s illegal to harass black workers because of their hairstyle or force them to hide their hair, according to the guidance.
The rules apply to employers and to public accommodations such as schools, fitness clubs and nightclubs. And they protect not just Afros and locs but also cornrows, braids, twists, fades and Bantu knots.
“Black hairstyles are protected racial characteristics under the [Human Rights Law] because they are an inherent part of Black identity,” the guidance says.
The city now offers stronger protections than federal courts have been willing to establish for black employees. An appeals court ruled in 2016 that an Alabama company did not violate a federal civil rights law by rescinding a job offer to a black woman who refused to cut her locs. The Supreme Court declined to take up the case last year.
But fights against such policies have continued. A racial discrimination complaint was brought against a Florida Christian school last year after a 6-year-old boy with dreadlocks was not allowed to attend. And a Texas mom last month accused her son’s school of having a “racist and gendered” policy because he was sent home and asked to cut his locs, according to news reports.
“Far too often, Black people are shamed and excluded from jobs or school because of objections to natural hairstyles, but courts have been slow to recognize that bias against natural Black hair is a form of race discrimination,” Ria Tabacco Mar, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a news release. “Today, New York City has taken an important step toward ensuring that all of us have the freedom to work and learn regardless of how we wear our hair.”
(Lead image: Dustin Brown of Jamaica follows through on a return against Andy Murray of Great Britain during his men’s singles match on day five of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 3, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)