Earlier this month, a California measure known as the CROWN Act — an acronym for “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair” — was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. This new law aims to protect against discrimination of employees and students based upon their natural hairstyle. The CROWN Act goes into effect on January 1, 2020, and will apply to public employers, private employers with five or more employees, and public schools. Religious associations and non-profit organizations are exempt.

The CROWN Act has become part of California’s job bias statute under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, which has now been amended to update the existing definition of race as "inclusive of traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles,” the latter including “such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists." 

The legislature specifically passed the CROWN Act in an effort to alter societal norms as it relates to certain identifiable characteristics associated with non-White skinned individuals. To that end, the lawmakers wrote the following into the opening section of the legislation to provide clarity as to the intended purpose of the new law:

  • The 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.

  • This idea also permeated societal understanding of professionalism. Professionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.

  • Despite the great strides American society and laws have made to reverse the racist ideology that Black traits are inferior, hair remains a rampant source of racial discrimination with serious economic and health consequences, especially for Black individuals.

  • Workplace dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on Black individuals as these policies are more likely to deter Black applicants and burden or punish Black employees than any other group.

  • Federal courts accept that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, and therefore protects against discrimination against afros. However, the courts do not understand that afros are not the only natural presentation of Black hair. Black hair can also be naturally presented in braids, twists, and locks.

  • In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race, and whether they were a second class citizen, hair today remains a proxy for race. Therefore, hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination.

  • Acting 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.

As with all types of discrimination, a violation of the CROWN Act carries with it the potential for monetary damages to a job applicant or employee who successfully pursues a claim. A violator of the CROWN Act can also be held liable for the job applicant's or employee's attorneys' fees, which can often be substantial.
The CROWN Act serves as a reminder of how California employers need to continuously review their policies and procedures for compliance against an ever-evolving legal backdrop. In consideration of the stated goals of this new law, employers should consider updating their existing anti-discrimination policies to include a specific reference to the matters addressed by the new law. In addition, employers should add a segment on this new law to their anti-harassment training program and be sure that all supervisors and members of management, as well as individuals involved in the hiring process, are familiar with these new obligations. For any employer maintaining a grooming and appearance policy, particularly one regulating hairstyles, that employer needs to ensure that the policy in no way hinders or precludes an employee's natural hairstyle. 
Our office can assist in formulating and/or revising any grooming and appearance policies to make them CROWN Act compliant. If you have any questions or would like to discuss, please call your firm contact at (818) 508-3700, or visit us online at www.brgslaw.com .

Richard S. Rosenberg
Katherine A. Hren
Shant A. Kotchounian
Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt, LLP