A black Alabama woman who lost a job offer because she refused to cut her dreadlocks is asking the Supreme Court to hear her case.
On April 4, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a petition to add EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions to the Court’s docket — a case with serious implications for how racial discrimination in the workplace is defined.
The case revolves around Chastity Jones, an Alabama woman who was offered a job as a customer service representative at a call center in Mobile in 2010. During the interview, Jones wore her hair in short, natural locs and was dressed in a business suit and pumps. An HR manager later told Jones that dreadlocks violated the company’s grooming policy because they “tend to get messy.” She told Jones she couldn’t wear her hair that way at work, and when Jones refused to cut her locs, the job offer was rescinded.
Since then, Jones has been locked in a legal battle with the company over its decision. Jones contends that the issue was a clear example of racial discrimination. The company, Catastrophe Management Solutions, says its decision was merely a grooming policy unrelated to race.
In 2013, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Alabama company, arguing that the HR manager denied Jones a job based on the harmful racial stereotype that African-American hair is naturally unprofessional. The federal district court in Alabama dismissed the claim, saying that racial discrimination must show bias based on traits that a person cannot change, like skin color, and that a hairstyle doesn’t fit into that category because it can be changed. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling in 2016 and then declined to hold a full en banc review of the case in December 2017.
Now Jones wants the Supreme Court to weigh in.
The case appears, on the surface, to be about an African-American worker’s right to wear natural hairstyles on the job. But it’s also about how the US legal system defines race. And it’s also about black women’s efforts to push back against deeply entrenched workplace stereotypes that pressure them to adopt white standards of beauty and professionalism.
“Black women who wish to succeed in the workplace feel compelled to undertake costly, time-consuming, and harsh measures to conform their natural hair to a stereotyped look of professionalism that mimics the appearance of White women’s hair,” lawyers for the LDF wrote in their petition to the Supreme Court.
They argue that this is what modern-day racial discrimination looks like: sometimes subtle, yet intentional racial biases and stereotypes that make it hard for people of color to get jobs and advance their careers.
How the US courts have defined race
The central issue in the case revolves around two significant questions: What is race, and what is racial discrimination?
The federal courts have generally considered race as a set of “immutable” traits shared by a group of people, hereditary characteristics that a person cannot change — such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features.
This definition is important because it determines how the courts decide what is racial discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from limiting job opportunities to workers “because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
The 11th Circuit justices said they consulted dictionary definitions for “race” from the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law:
Although the period dictionaries did not use the word “immutable” to describe such common characteristics, it is not much of a linguistic stretch to think that such characteristics are a matter of birth, and not culture.
The Alabama district court dismissed Jones’s lawsuit based on the argument that dreadlocks are not an “immutable trait” that Jones can’t change. By that logic, a company policy that bans dreadlocks cannot be a form of intentional discrimination. They cited the 1981 case of Rogers v. American Airlines, in which a New York district judge ruled that the airline did not discriminate against a black flight attendant when her supervisor said her braided cornrows violated the company’s grooming policy. The Alabama appellate court agreed with that view.
The LDF and the EEOC argue that those rulings rest on outdated notions of what race is and what racial discrimination looks like.
Discrimination is now more subtle and harder to detect
The LDF and the EEOC say that race is more than a person’s biological traits, and that a growing body of research shows that race is also a social construct based on shared culture and identity. According to this argument, dreadlocks are so closely associated with black America that any company policy banning them is a race-based policy.
But their main dispute is over the HR manager’s reason for banning locs — because they “tend to get messy” — which hinges on a racial stereotype that intentionally harms black workers:
Locs are often the target of scorn and derision based on long-held stereotypes that natural Black hair is dirty, unprofessional, or unkempt. Indeed, the term “dreadlocks” originated from slave traders’ descriptions of Africans’ hair that had naturally formed into locs during the Middle Passage as “dreadful.”
The stereotype that Black natural hairstyles are dirty or unkempt and therefore not appropriate for more formal settings remains unfortunately widespread. For example, until 2014, the U.S. military banned a number of common Black hairstyles, including cornrows and braids. School administrators and dress codes also often restrict Black natural hairstyles.
The LDF said that modern-day racial discrimination is not as overt as it was 40 years ago, and that the courts need to recognize that.
“In an age where employment discrimination rarely presents itself in policies that explicitly exclude employees based on skin color, the vitality of Title VII depends on its ability to root out more subtle practices — facially neutral policies, racial proxies, stereotyped thinking — that still operate to disfavor applicants based on their race,” the lawyers wrote in their petition.
Research shows persistent biases toward black women with natural hair. In one implicit bias test, white women showed the strongest bias — both explicit and implicit — against textured hair, rating it as less beautiful and less professional than smooth hair.
The LDF also argues that the 11th Circuit is ignoring precedent set by the Supreme Court in its 1989 ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. In that case, a female lawyer said her supervisors repeatedly told her she was too aggressive and needed to walk, talk, and dress more “femininely” if she wanted to get a promotion. The Court ruled that gender stereotypes at work can be a form of intentional sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, even though femininity is mutable. The LDF said that legal standard should also apply to racial discrimination claims, and that denying someone a job based on a racial stereotype can also be a form of discrimination. In Jones’s case, the stereotype is that natural black hair is unprofessional and messy.
The Supreme Court is in the process of picking cases to hear during its next term, which starts in October. The Court normally hears arguments for 100 to 150 cases out of the thousands of cases submitted to the bench. So far, it has granted requests to hear eight cases next term, though none have been added since the LDF made its petition.