The movement to prohibit race discrimination based on hair texture and hair type in schools and workplaces is gaining traction across the nation, with newly signed laws in Michigan and Texas bringing to 23 the number of states that have adopted versions of the CROWN Act.
While broader federal protections already prohibit sex- and race-based discrimination, the CROWN Act provides another tool to fight bias, said Patricia Okonta, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is advocating — alongside the CROWN Coalition — for CROWN acts in all 50 states. CROWN is the widely used acronym for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.”
“Schools and school officials should be aware that these protections exist and that students can use the CROWN Act … to protect their rights as Black students or students of color within a particular school district,” Okonta said.
Michigan became the latest state to enact the legislation, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature on June 15, putting the measure into effect immediately. Prior to that, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott May 27 signed his state's version, which takes effect Sept. 1.
Along with protecting students, CROWN legislation protects employees — including those in schools and districts — from hair-based discrimination.
First enacted in California in July 2019, the legislation has since taken root in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Some municipalities also provide their own CROWN protections, including Charleston, West Virginia; Kansas City, Missouri; and Miami Beach, Florida.
Understanding the latest protections
For districts where CROWN has been enacted, it’s important that schools understand what the laws specifically prohibit and update their professional development training to reflect the new protections, Okonta said.
School officials should take time to understand the needs and experiences of their students, she said.
“In general, policies that prohibit natural hair styles like afros and braids, locs, other protective styles have historically been used to justify the removal of Black children and other students of color from classrooms,” Okonta said.
These laws aim to let students fully be themselves and enjoy their schooling safely, without disruption, and “without an extra burden of trying to adhere to any White supremacy notions of what is acceptable,” she said.
Research has demonstrated real and harmful impacts of hair discrimination against Black students.
And it can happen at a young age. The 2021 Dove CROWN Study for Girls, for example, revealed 86% of Black teens who faced hair discrimination had experienced it by age 12. Some 90% of Black girls said they considered their own hair beautiful but that microaggressions and discrimination over their hair had led to low self-esteem. The study surveyed 1,000 Black and White girls ages 5-18.
Student cases of hair discrimination
Hair bias has also reached the courts. In 2020, for instance, two students and their families sued the Texas’ Barbers Hill Independent School District over its grooming and dress code policy on hair length requirements.
The suit alleged that the policy prohibited the students from participating in their regular classes or school activities. Both students had grown out their locs for years, and they refused to cut them to meet the policy. They were consequently indefinitely expelled from school, which meant that one missed his own high school graduation.
Both students testified in support of the CROWN act before the Texas legislature in 2021.
Hair-based discrimination has stretched to student athletics, too. In New Jersey, a Black high school wrestler made national headlines in 2019 after a video showed a referee forcing the student to cut his dreadlocks before participating in a match.
Widely publicized cases like these have motivated state legislators to increasingly pass CROWN Acts, Okonta said.
“We are exposing this sort of discrimination that has existed for a long time and has denied Black people’s mobility and infringed on their right to exist as their full selves,” Okonta said. “Now that we’ve seen this sort of public acknowledgement in experience that was going on, people are motivated to act.”