Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill Thursday banning discrimination in the workplace or schools based on hairstyle or texture, making New Jersey the third state to enact such protection.
The action came exactly a year after Andrew Johnson, a black wrestler at Buena Regional High in Atlantic County, decided to have his dreadlocks cut to avoid forfeiting his match after a white referee said Johnson could not wrestle without covering his hair. A video of the hair-cutting went viral and prompted charges of racism and cultural insensitivity.
“Race-based discrimination will not be tolerated in the State of New Jersey," Murphy said in a statement. “No one should be made to feel uncomfortable or be discriminated against because of their natural hair."
Johnson’s attorney, Dominic Spezali, said he welcomed the law, but said Johnson should not have been forced to make such a tough decision. Johnson, now a senior, was competing Thursday night in his first match this season.
“It’s a lot to bear on his shoulders,” Spezali said. “He should have never been put through this.”
Earlier this year, California and New York passed measures that ban race-based hair discrimination. Thirteen other states are considering similar bills, according to advocates for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Network (CROWN), a coalition of civil rights groups.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) announced plans to introduce a federal bill that prohibits discrimination against styles such as braids, twists, or locs. Advocates say the bills are necessary to address the growing issue of hair among different cultures and ethnic groups, and toughen existing laws to include race-based hair discrimination.
Lawmakers who sponsored the New Jersey bill said they were inspired by Johnson, now 17, to strengthen the state’s anti-discrimination laws. The video of the haircutting was posted online and shows a distressed Johnson standing on the mat as a Buena trainer uses scissors to remove several inches of hair.
"This law will ensure people of color are free to wear their hair however they feel best represents them, whether that be locks, braids, twists, or curls. No one should ever be told it is ‘unprofessional’ to embrace their culture,” State Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham (D., Hudson) said in a statement.
Johnson, then a junior, decided to have several inches cut on Dec. 19, 2018, 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.
The incident sparked an investigation by the state Division on Civil Rights with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. In September, they suspended Maloney for two years under an agreement that requires implicit bias training for officials and staff involved in high school athletics. The state also issued a new “Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle.”