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N.J. bill would ban discrimination based on hairstyle. It’s a measure prompted by Buena dreadlocks incident.

A bill introduced in the New Jersey legislature would ban discrimination based on hairstyle or texture. The measure is in response to an incident in December at a South Jersey high school where Andrew Johnson decided to have his dreadlocks cut to avoid forfeiting a wrestling match.

Buena H.S. wrestler Andrew Johnson walks off the mat after losing during a wrestling match at Timber Creek High school in January.
Buena H.S. wrestler Andrew Johnson walks off the mat after losing during a wrestling match at Timber Creek High school in January.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

A bill introduced in the New Jersey Legislature would ban discrimination based on hair in the workplace, housing, and public schools.

The measure was prompted in part by a Buena high school wrestler who had his dreadlocks cut to avoid forfeiting a match. It would toughen civil rights laws by prohibiting discrimination based on hair type, texture or style, and include such natural styles as locs, braids, twists, and Afros. Identical versions of the bill were introduced this month in the Assembly and Senate.

If the measure is approved, New Jersey would join California, New York state, and New York City in taking steps to address the issue of hair among different cultures and ethnic groups. Blacks have increasingly pushed back against workplace policies that prohibit natural hairstyles.

“For too long, narrow beauty standards in this country have perpetuated unfair scrutiny and injustice for hairstyles and textures inherent to blacks’ identity, and change is crucial,” Esi Eggleston Bracey, executive vice president and chief operating officer of North America beauty and personal care at Unilever, the New Jersey-based parent company of Dove, which co-founded the CROWN campaign, said in a statement. CROWN stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair.”

New Jersey lawmakers who sponsored the bill say they were inspired partly by Andrew Johnson, a South Jersey wrestler who decided to have his dreadlocks cut to avoid forfeiting his match last December. Johnson won the match in overtime and Buena Regional High School won the meet, but the debate has continued about whether the referee acted appropriately and whether his actions were racially discriminatory.

“This is an issue that our young people face all the time,” State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D., Hudson), the bill’s primary sponsor, said Monday. “Everybody has a right to decide what they want to look like and how they want to present themselves.”

Current laws don’t provide protection for race-based hair discrimination even if the hairstyle is inherent to racial identity. New Jersey could be among the first states to enact such protection. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court in Alabama rejected a claim by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued a company there that rescinded a job offer when a black woman refused to cut her locs. The court found that the company’s “race neutral” grooming policy was not discriminatory.

Cunningham’s bill would add the word race to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and include traits historically associated with such as hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles. Under the bill, the term “protective hair styles” includes natural styles such as the locs worn by Johnson.

Johnson, then 16, decided to have his locs cut in front of a packed gym after the referee, Alan Maloney, told him he could not wrestle without a legally sanctioned hair covering. Johnson had a covering, but Maloney said it did not meet wrestling standards.

A junior, Johnson was given 90 seconds to correct the problem. A video of the hair cutting showed a distressed Johnson standing on the mat as a Buena trainer used scissors to cut several inches of hair. Maloney has not publicly commented on the incident, but other wrestling officials have said he was simply following the rules.

The incident soon prompted charges of racism and holding a cultural bias against Johnson and other black scholastic athletes. The New Jersey Athletic Association barred Maloney, a longtime wrestling official, from officiating at any meets pending the outcome of the investigations by the agency and the state Division of Civil Rights. Both investigations are ongoing.

Johnson’s attorney, Dominic Speziali, of Philadelphia, said the bill was needed and commended the sponsors. If adopted, the bill would likely require some public schools to review their hair grooming policies, he said.

“This legislation is an acknowledgement of a problem. It’s a push in the right direction,” Speziali said. "This is something that people shouldn’t have to worry about.”

The issue of hair discrimination is more common in the workplace, experts said. Dove said it conducted a national study this year that found that black women are 80 percent more likely than women in general to change their natural hairstyles to meet expectations, and 50 percent more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair.

Cunningham said she hopes her bill “will open up the eyes of some companies that have played a role in this.” The bill was co-sponsored by seven black female legislators, including one with a natural hairstyle, she said. The bill was referred to the Labor Committee in each house and a petition drive has been launched. A possible vote is not expected until the fall session.

“For African Americans, there seems to be a fascination with our hair," Cunningham said. “It’s who we are.”

Earlier this year, the New York City Commission on Human Rights adopted a policy that protects the rights to “maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.” It carries a $250,000 fine for employers with any policies that restrict natural hairstyles. In New York state, a similar measure has been approved by both houses and sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The bill pending in California would amend the state’s anti-discrimination laws to "also include traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” The bill, part of the Dove campaign, is known as the CROWN Act.

“It’s a natural hair movement,” said Oscar Holmes, an associate professor of management at Rutgers-Camden who teaches about workplace diversity. “Times have changed, and people have embraced their race and culture, and see their black as beautiful.”