The CROWN Act: Fighting Hair Discrimination and Upholding Civil Rights

    Over the past few years, the CROWN Act has made quiet and steady progress in tackling an enduring but widely unacknowledged form of racism. Beyond discrimination based on skin color, many Black women—and some men— continue to face prejudice and bias simply because of how they wear their hair.

    According to a 2023 study by the movement behind the legislative effort, one in five Black women between the ages of 25 and 34 has been sent home from work because their hairstyle was deemed unprofessional or inappropriate. Two out of three survey respondents reported straightening their hair for a job interview because they believed it would help them be more successful.

    Nor is that kind of bigotry restricted to adults. A 2021 CROWN group study found that almost two out of three Black children in majority-white schools had faced race-based hair discrimination, with girls reporting having experienced some kind of hair-based discrimination by the time they were just 10 years old.

    It’s just those sorts of situations that the CROWN Act—Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair—was introduced to address in 2019, by seeking to amend the existing definition of race to include traits that are historically associated with it such as hair texture and styles (think braids, locks, twists and Bantu knots). So far, it has been enacted in 23 states.

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    “This is an issue of civil rights,” says Adjoa B. Asamoah, a long-time racial equity champion—previous roles include having served as national adviser for Black engagement to the Biden-Harris election campaign—who has led the legislative strategy of the CROWN campaign. “We’ve always worn our hair in the many ways in which we do, embracing the full versatility of our hair, but you want to have in place policy to ensure [the necessary] protection,” she says, “… a law [that] enables a consequence to be enforced when violations occur.”

    The daughter of an Africana studies and political science professor, Asamoah first got involved in justice issues as a teenager. “I’ve been in this space for a very long time,” she says, “working at the intersection of policy and politics, ensuring that our communities understand their power, are tapping into that power, leveraging that power for the purpose of social action.”

    Global issue

    Asamoah’s dissertation research into hair-focused discrimination has helped raise awareness of the hair prejudice issue. Previously, most information was largely anecdotal, “which obviously doesn’t meet the academic rigor,” she says. “People are still just now telling their stories that have happened well before there was any statutory protection against this form of racial discrimination.”

    Since the CROWN initiative was launched in partnership with Dove and a coalition including the National Urban League, Color of Change and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, it has won widespread support in the United States and overseas.

    “We have this sort of global movement now that is fighting against anti-Blackness, to put it candidly, which we know is a global issue and has been,” says Asamoah. But it goes even further, “in really addressing these Eurocentric standards of beauty that say that the African aesthetic is not something that should be lifted and celebrated.”

    Despite the progress that has been made, there is still some resistance, even in states where the bill has been enacted. Some people remain “anti-progress and don’t want to see liberation for all,” she says. “We have work to continue… I acknowledge that changing the law is not necessarily changing hearts and minds.”

    It’s important that people understand what the CROWN legislation actually says and doesn’t, Asamoah stresses. “It is explicitly about categorizing hair as a racial characteristic, including hair texture and protective styles, which we identify as including locks, braids, twists, Bantu knots, etc.,” she says. It does not interfere with government regulations in regard to work- place safety: “If you work in food services, if you have to wear a hairnet, well, braids can go in a hairnet.”

    Asamoah pays tribute to Marcia Fudge, now Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, for her early efforts on the issue. One of the original supporters of the legislation when she was a member of Congress (D-OH), she was the first lawmaker Asamoah was aware of with an interest in the issue.

    As chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Fudge had written a letter to the then Secretary of Defense calling out “the inherent bias, discrimination and bans on certain hairstyles,” Asamoah says. “So, when I was trying to figure out what is and is not possible, her work calling it out as a lawmaker let me know that there was an appetite, there was a window for that.”

    Though the CROWN initiative is centrally a women’s issue, Asamoah singles out two men who have played a significant part in the effort. Former U.S. Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-LA), now Director of the Office of Public Engagement, pledged his support to introduce the bill “before there was even a groundswell of support,” she says. Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.) was another early supporter. “They were first to the party.”

    Such involvement has been crucial because while the issue does disproportionately impact Black women, “not exclusively,” Asamoah says. “We are inextricably linked as a people. What happens to Black men happens to Black women, Black girls, Black boys as a family unit. And so, it’s something that we are addressing as a community.”

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