In December last year, a white referee forced a New Jersey high school student to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match. This week, Governor Phil Murphy signed a law banning discrimination based on hairstyles associated with race.
Governor Murphy signed “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act,” also known as the CROWN Act, into law on Thursday. It amends a current race discrimination law to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles,” such as braids, locks and twists.
The law makes it illegal to target people at work, school or in public spaces based on these traits.
“Race-based discrimination will not be tolerated in the State of New Jersey,” Governor Murphy said in a press release. “No one should be made to feel uncomfortable or be discriminated against because of their natural hair. I am proud to sign this law in order to help ensure that all New Jersey residents can go to work, school, or participate in athletic events with dignity.”
Senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker praised the law in a statement, saying, “Discrimination against black hair is discrimination against black people and no one should be denied a job, an education, or face discrimination because of their hairstyle.”
“I have definitely felt like there’s pressure to make your hair look and conform to a way that is not the way that it naturally grows out of your head,” Zakiya Smith-Ellis, the state’s Secretary of Higher Education, said in a video on Twitter. “And that is really, that’s a lot of pressure, to be like, ‘I need to spend several hours or get different, like a wig to put over my head, to not be able to show up.”
The legislation was introduced after a widely circulated video showed wrestler Andrew Johnson’s hair being haphazardly cut following a decision by referee Alan Maloney. An investigation by the state Division on Civil Rights found that Maloney gave Johnson the choice of forfeiting the match or cutting his hair because an appropriate covering for his hair could not be located, The Associated Press reported. Johnson went on to win the match, and the video went viral.
In July, California became the first state to sign the CROWN act into law, followed by New York. According to the act’s website, it’s been introduced in 12 other states in the eastern part of the United States.
“While natural hair might seem like an irrelevant front in the never-ending battle against discrimination, we know that hair discrimination is too often used as a proxy for racism in ways that directly impact the success of people of color in schools, courtrooms, and board rooms,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of ACLU-NJ. “Adding hair discrimination to the protections offered in the Law Against Discrimination is an influential recognition of the myriad ways that racism expresses itself and provides people with a powerful tool to combat it.”