A Hairy Situation

A federal appeals court recently ruled that banning employees from wearing their hair in dreadlocks does not qualify as racial discrimination. EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, No. 14-13482 (11th Cir. Sept. 15, 2016). In a 3-0 decision, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted to uphold a lower court’s dismissal of a 2013 lawsuit brought by Chastity Jones. After receiving an offer of employment from an insurance claims processing company in Mobile, Alabama, Jones was told that she would have to cut her dreadlocks in order to comply with the company’s grooming policy. Jones said that a white human resources manager told her that her dreadlocks were against company policy since they “tend to get messy.” After Jones refused to change her hairstyle, she claims that her offer was withdrawn.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on Jones’ behalf in 2013, arguing that the prohibition of dreadlocks in the workplace constitutes race discrimination, in violation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is “physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” The federal court rejected this argument, and dismissed the case. The EEOC filed an appeal in 2015.

Federal law bans employment discrimination on the basis of race, and courts have routinely interpreted that to mean discrimination based on skin color and other “immutable traits.” This distinction between mutability and immutability proved to be decisive, with the Eleventh Circuit deciding whether the hairstyle is a physical trait that can be changed. In the opinion, Judge Aldalberto Jordan, recognized that the definitions and understandings of race can change over time, writing: “We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that, in the last several decades, there have been some calls for courts to interpret Title VII more expansively by eliminating the biological conception of ‘race’ and encompassing cultural characteristics associated with race.” However, the court was ultimately reluctant to lead such an inquiry. Citing several decisions, the court stated that as far as they can tell, every court to have considered the issue has rejected the argument that Title VII protects hairstyles culturally associated with race.

Critically, the EEOC’s complaint did not allege that dreadlocks themselves are an immutable characteristic of black persons; it stated that black persons choose to wear dreadlocks because that hairstyle is historically, physiologically, and culturally associated with their race. Judge Jordan explained: “We recognize that the distinction between immutable and mutable characteristics of race can sometimes be a fine (and difficult) one, but it is a line that courts have drawn. So, for example, discrimination on the basis of black hair texture (an immutable characteristic) is prohibited by Title VII, while adverse action on the basis of black hairstyle (a mutable choice) is not.” As such, the court ruled that the EEOC failed to state a plausible claim that the company intentionally discriminated against the applicant on the basis of her race by asking her to cut her dreadlocks under its race-neutral grooming policy.

This case will likely continue important discussions as to whether protected classes are tied only to biological characteristics, or whether the concept of race should include societal constructs. The Eleventh Circuit, however, stated that a change in the meaning of race under Title VII was best left to Congress. Read the full opinion here.


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