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Bill would amend Md. civil rights law to ban hairstyle bias

Sen. William "Will" Smith, chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. (The Daily Record/File photo)

Sen. William C. “Will” Smith, chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. (The Daily Record/File photo)

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s prohibition on racial discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations would be expanded to include bias on the basis of hairstyles associated with race under legislation pending before the General Assembly.

Specifically, the measure would broaden the civil rights law’s definition of “race” to include “traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, afro hairstyles, and protective hairstyles.” The legislation defines a “protective hairstyle” as one “designed to protect the ends of the hair by decreasing tangling, shedding, and breakage, including braids, twists, and locks.”

Civil rights attorneys have long challenged corporate hairstyle policies — such as a requirement that hair be kept short and unbraided — as having a “disparate impact” on racial minorities. Such arguments of unintended or tacit racial bias have had mixed success in the courts in the absence of an express, statutory link between race and hairstyle, according to court records.

The same courtroom results have held true with regard to claims of housing and public accommodations bias, where courts have often held that while racial minorities are a protected class, hairstyle is not.

Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., chief sponsor of the bill, said Friday that the legislation would make clear that hairstyle is inseparable form race, particularly in the African American community.

“It’s sad to have to protect people’s naturally occurring hairstyles” from discrimination, said Smith, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “(The bill) ensures that people with these hairstyles can wear their hair without conforming to Eurocentric styles.”

The bill is part of a national movement to end discrimination based on hairstyle, a form of bias that particularly harms African Americans, Smith said.

California and New York have recently enacted such CROWN laws, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair. Montgomery County passed a CROWN ordinance last year.

“Everyone should be protected under the law,” said Smith, D-Montgomery.

The issue of hairstyle bias came to the fore in December 2018, when a referee in New Jersey told a black high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the match.

Last year, a high school student in Mont Belvieu, Texas, was told his dreadlocks violated the school’s dress code. In response, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus said this month that it plans to introduce legislation to ban discrimination based on hairstyle.

Likewise, Smith said Friday that he plans to add language to the bill to protect students.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the legislation, Senate Bill 531, on Feb. 18.

Del. Stephanie Smith, D-Baltimore city, is the chief sponsor of the bill in the House of Delegates. The delegate did not return a message Friday afternoon seeking comment on the legislation.

House Bill 1444 has been referred to the House Health and Government Operations Committee. A hearing date has not been set.


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