Crown Act: California Becomes the First State to Ban Discrimination Against Natural Hair
By Alex Newsum
On July 3, 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed the CROWN ACT into law, making California the first state to legally protect natural hairstyles. The new law is based partially on the California Legislature’s finding that the United States has historically been riddled with laws that have equated certain “black traits” with inferiority. (SB 188, Section 1(a).) The Legislature has also found that the idea of “professionalism” in the United States has traditionally been associated with European features and mannerisms. (SB 188, Section 1(b).) As such, the CROWN ACT, according to Governor Newsom’s press release, is intended to prohibit employers from enforcing “purportedly ‘race neutral’ grooming policies that disproportionately impact persons of color.”
The CROWN ACT operates by expanding existing protections against racial discrimination for California employees. Under California’s employment discrimination laws, the definition of “race” now includes “traits historically associated with race” including “hair texture and protective hairstyles.” (Gov. Code section 12926(w).) “Protective Hairstyles” includes hairstyles such as “braids, locks, and twists.” (Gov. Code section 12926(x).) This change limits California employer’s ability to control the appearance of their employees through dress code and grooming policies even when these policies apply universally to all employees. However, employers are still entitled to maintain dress and grooming policies as long as they are “valid and non-discriminatory,” and do not disproportionately impact people of color. (See Governor Newsom’s Press Release.)
Federal law has historically provided similar protection against hair discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Federal courts have interpreted Title VII as preventing discrimination against afro hairstyles. (SB 188, Section 1(e).) California’s new law takes this protection further by recognizing that “afros are not the only natural presentation of Black hair”. While California is the first state to protect employees from racial discrimination based on hairstyle, the trend has continued in New York where an almost identical bill was recently signed into law. A similar bill protecting natural hairstyles has also been introduced in the New Jersey legislature. Prior to the enactment of the CROWN ACT, the New York City Commission on Human Rights banned hair-based discrimination in New York City.
With the passage of the CROWN ACT, California employers should immediately review their existing dress and grooming policies to ensure they do not run afoul of the new law. Employers should consult with legal counsel with any questions about the CROWN ACT and the potential impact it has on their current employment practices.