Last week, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that banning employees from wearing their hair in dreadlocks is not a form of racial discrimination.
The lawsuit was brought to the court of appeals by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which charged that an Alabama insurance claims processing company had discriminated against Chastity Jones in 2010 when she applied to work for them. They offered her employment with the caveat that she needed to get rid of her dreadlocks because of their grooming standards, stating that dreadlocks “tend to get messy.” When Jones refused to change her hair, the company withdrew its offer of employment.
According to the EEOC, “prohibition of dreadlocks in the workplace constitutes race discrimination because dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” The EEOC even went so far as to say that “if a white person chose to wear dreadlocks as a sign of racial support for her black colleagues, and the employer applied its dreadlocks ban to that person, she too could assert a race-based disparate treatment claim.”
Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan, who wrote the appellate opinion, wrote that it was true that the definition of race could shift over time but that the court was not prepared to blaze a new path that they were not sure the law covered.
“We would be remiss,” he wrote, “if we did not acknowledge that, in the last several decades, there have been some calls for courts to interpret Title VII more expansively by eliminating the biological conception of ‘race’ and encompassing cultural characteristics associated with race.”
“As far as we can tell, every court to have considered the issue has rejected the argument that Title VII protects hairstyles culturally associated with race.”