In December 2018, Andrew Johnson’s hair became national news. The 16-year-old wrestler from Buena Regional High School in Atlantic County was given 90 seconds to have his dreadlocks sheared, in the school gym, in public — or a referee wouldn’t allow him to compete.
Now, City Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker wants to make it illegal in Philadelphia to discriminate against African Americans who wear their hair in natural styles such as Afros, dreadlocks, twists, cornrows, and braids, and use ornaments like beads and barrettes. The bill that she introduced Thursday would ban hair discrimination in housing, employment, schools, competitive sports, and other aspects of life.
If it passes, Philadelphia would be the first municipality in Pennsylvania to adopt such a measure.
“This is more than a bill about hair,” Parker said. “This is about our culture and cultural competency.”
Throughout the country and around the world, she said, black people have faced discrimination for choosing to wear hairstyles that reflect their cultural heritage.
“I think about the discrimination that both Venus and Serena Williams faced as young girls attempting to break down the barriers to entry to competitive tennis when the cultural norms of mainstream tennis were not welcoming,” Parker said.
The bill would amend the city’s antidiscrimination law to include discrimination based on characteristics commonly associated with race, such as hair texture and hairstyles.
There was a national outcry when reports surfaced that a white referee refused to let the black South Jersey wrestler compete until his locs were cut. But Parker cited recent incidents in Pennsylvania involving allegations of natural hair discrimination.
As recently as January, administrators at Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School told sophomore Julian Younger to change his hair or face suspension. Students are petitioning to change what they called the school’s outdated hair policy.
Last October, Pennsylvania State University football coach James Franklin defended co-captain Jonathan Sutherland after an alumnus sent Sutherland a letter calling his shoulder-length locs “disgusting.”
“Despite all of our efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in all aspects of society, we are far from an inclusive society,” Parker said.
Her proposed legislation was drafted in coordination with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.
“For too long, grooming and appearance policies have been written and enforced by white cultural standards that often perpetuate racist stereotypes,” Rue Landau, executive director of the commission, said in a statement. “The City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations want to make it clear that policies banning or restricting people based on cultural characteristics such as hair styles or hair texture are racist, discriminatory, and illegal in Philadelphia, plain and simple.”
A bill such as the one introduced by Parker is usually known as a “CROWN Act” — an acronym for "Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.”
Last July 3, California became the first state to enact a CROWN Act, and New York followed about a week later. New Jersey passed its law in December.
Parker praised State Sen. Vincent Hughes and State Rep. Joanna McClinton, the House Democratic Caucus chair, for working on legislation for a Pennsylvania CROWN Act, which has yet to be introduced. She noted that both Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) have introduced or cosponsored federal CROWN Act legislation in Congress.
Parker said she will call a hearing and invite speakers such as Adjoa B. Asamoah, a CROWN Coalition consultant who has led the charge to enact CROWN Act laws around the country.