The Public Shearing of Andrew Johnson’s Dreadlocks
In December 2018, a video showed a white high school trainer in New Jersey cutting dreadlocks from 16-year old African American wrestler, Andrew Johnson. The lead referee had instructed him, ‘Cut your hair in the next 90 seconds, or you will be banned from today’s competition.’
The image is shocking: a white woman roughly cutting a black teenager’s hair in front of an auditorium filled with parents and children. Andrew stared straight ahead. The school initially argued haircut was needed for the safety of the wrestlers in accordance with standard rules about wrestlers’ hair length.
The justification for the act quickly was overpowered by its dreadful significance. In response to the public outcry, the state attorney general’s office suspended the referee for two years, and ordered educators in all high schools in New Jersey to undergo implicit bias training.
A Conversation Begins
Public reactions to the video ranged from outrage to denial. According to an April 17, 2019 Washington Post article about Mr. Johnson, residents of his hometown, in New Jersey had mixed reactions too.
Many who attended the match that night, saw the cutting of Andrew’s dreadlocks as an act of racial intolerance. Others blamed Andrew himself for failing to follow hair length rules applicable to all wrestlers. Some saw the event as proof that racism in America is endemic. Others argued it was racist to claim that the cutting of Andrew Johnson’s deadlocks was an act of racial discrimination.
California Leads the Way
The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) does not lay out an exhaustive list of acts and attitudes that violate the rights of job seekers and employees. That is part of its strength. If gives us the flexibility to decide whether an act or process is discriminatory based on the evidence in specific cases.
Instead of relying on a limited number of examples, FEHA sets out protected categories of people and conditions. One’s race falls into one of the protected categories. Being disabled places a person into another. A person cannot be harassed or discriminated against based on their status as a member or one or more of these categories.
Beginning January 1, 2020, policies and practices that target hairstyles associated with race constitute acts of discrimination in both education and employment. Known as the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), Senate Bill 188 modifies the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Education Code. The newly defined additional category states that discrimination based on race now includes “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”
Senate Bill 188 Expands Protections Against Discrimination in Employment and Education
California has some of the most broadly protective employment discrimination laws in the nation. The CROWN Act adds “Protective hairstyles” as an additionally protected category under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. SB-188 also amends the California Education Code to prohibit discrimination based on “Protective hairstyles,” which “includes, but is not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.”
In a world where physical appearance continues to be employed as a weapon for denying equal protection under the law to all citizens and residents, the new law makes a powerful statement about race and ethnicity-based discrimination. “Hair remains a rampant source of racial discrimination with serious economic and health consequences, especially for Black individuals,” the Legislature declares.
The Legislature’s Preamble to SB 188
The Legislative preamble to SB-188 makes a powerful statement about hair in the context of the history of race discrimination and toxic ethnocentrism in America.
To combat bigoted ideas that have permeated “societal understanding of professional,” the preamble states, “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…, 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.”
The public shearing of Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks in 2018 is another watershed moment in the history of race relations in America. The public haircut of a black child surrounded by white adults generated discussions across our country about who we are and how we think about, and treat, others.
Bigotry is almost always accompanied by insults denigrating others based on their physical characteristics, whether it be skin or hair. The legislative preamble to SB 188 should be required reading for every HR manager, supervisor and educator in California.
Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Patrick Kitchin is an employment attorney with offices in San Francisco, California. He has represented thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. Patrick also represents employers requiring guidance in California employment law. Patrick is a graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and rated AV-Preeminent by Martindale-Hubbell, its highest ranking for legal knowledge, skill, experience and ethics. You can visit his website: www.kitchinlegal.com.