Last week, a lawsuit that began in 2013 reached what appears to be a dead end when a woman’s motion to intervene as the petitioner in hopes of having the case heard by the Supreme Court of the United States was denied. The case in question involves the woman, Chastity Jones, who claims a potential employer rescinded a job offer when she refused to stop wearing her hair in locs, a decision she believes demonstrates discrimination based on racial stereotypes.
According to the lawsuit filed on her behalf by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Jones, who is black, was offered a job with Alabama-based company Catastrophe Management Solutions in 2010, but a white human resources manager told her she would have to do away with her locs because, the manager allegedly said, they “tend to get messy,” which violates the company policy that employees’ hairstyles “should reflect a business/professional image,” and that “no excessive hairstyles” are acceptable. The EEOC’s complaint asserted that the company refused to employ a qualified black candidate because of a racially charged opinion of locs that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says refusal to hire someone based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is unlawful.
In 2016, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 2014 decision by Alabama federal judge Charles R. Butler Jr., who wrote in the 2014 ruling that a “hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic.” In the ruling, Butler also wrote, “A hairstyle is not inevitable and immutable just because it is a reasonable result of hair texture, which is an immutable characteristic,” and declared, “Title VII does not protect against discrimination based on traits, even a trait that has socio-cultural racial significance.”
It’s an understandably controversial decision, one that can feel even more disappointing than the many examples of racially-tinged discrimination and stereotyping that never see the inside of a courtroom. When the EEOC decided not to appeal Jones’s case to the Supreme Court, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) filed a motion for Jones to intervene as the petitioner in the case so she could seek review of the 11th Circuit Court’s decision. “A Black natural hairstyle is not a relevant factor for determining whether a person is able to do a specific job. Chastity Jones’ case is at the heart of whether Black people can compete in the workforce.” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel at LDF, said in a statement. However, the Supreme Court denied the motion.
But that doesn’t mean Jones’s case lacked merit or that the Supreme Court will never hear a case on locs-centric discimination. “Essentially, Ms. Jones, as an interested party, asked the Supreme Court if she could intervene in order to file a petition for writ of certiorari. The Supreme Court denied that without explanation,” says Diane Seltzer Torre, an attorney who mediates employment disputes in Washington, D.C. and Maryland. She tells Allure that SCOTUS might have denied it simply because LDF filed the motion more than 90 days after the 11th Circuit Court’s decision.
Seltzer Torre, who has represented several clients claiming racial discrimination based on employer demands to stop wearing locs, says that SCOTUS’s denial shouldn’t be mistaken as a decision, and it doesn’t mean employers nationwide have free reign to fire or refuse to hire people based on their locs. “There are certainly state and local laws that are either written more expansively and/or could be (and often are) interpreted more generously, and that has the effect of giving greater protection to something such as a hairstyle. For example, the D.C. Human Rights Act specifically protects people from discrimination based on personal appearance, so an employee in D.C. may choose to claim this is not only race discrimination, but also personal appearance discrimination,” she tells Allure.
Seltzer Torre offers advice for those who feel that an employer may be discriminating against them due to their locs: “First, raise the employer’s awareness about why they wear their hairstyle in a certain way. Explain why the hairstyle matters. Many times, a hairstyle is an expression of a religious belief, but not everyone automatically realizes that as the reason why the employee/applicant wears their hair in that manner. Failing to hire someone or not continuing to employ someone unless they change their hair could give rise to a claim of religious discrimination and/or failure to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs,” Seltzer Torre explains.
“Second, look at the company’s personal appearance policy, if there is one. What does it say about hairstyles? Does it seem like it would have a disproportionate impact on members of a certain protected class? In the Jones case, the grooming policy did not mention the word dreadlocks, but some policies may,” Seltzer Torre says, “Third, try to learn how the company has handled other people’s hairstyle choices. Has there been across-the-board enforcement that touches various races and genders, or are certain groups being singled out? Is it certain supervisors who are causing the problem?”
Ultimately, you may want to consider talking with an employment lawyer or going to the EEOC (or your state or local fair employment practices agency) for more guidance, because it’s not a futile fight. “Just as sexual orientation and gender expression are evolving areas of how the law defines sex discrimination, and as we are becoming more aware of the impact of implicit bias, maybe our courts will be enlightened on the right facts to give a wider berth regarding how the law defines race discrimination.”
More hair-related controversies:
- This Banana Republic Employee Says Her Box Braids Were Called Too “Urban”
- This School Threatened to Suspend Black Students for Wearing Braids
- It Is 2018 and Idiots Are STILL Saying You Can’t Be Elegant With an Afro
Now, watch these girls talk about what beauty means to them:
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