By: Richard Thompson Ford –
Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that an employer that refused to hire a black woman because of her dreadlocks did not commit such discrimination. In 2010, Chastity Jones applied for a job in a call center. Even though the job didn’t involve direct contact with the public, the employer required its workers to adhere to a dress code that demanded a “business/professional image” and prohibited “excessive hairstyles or unusual colors.” Jones got the job—on the condition that she cut off her dreadlocks. She refused, and Catastrophe Management Solutions rescinded her job offer. Jones took her case to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who sued on her behalf under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But the legal question was not whether the dress code was fair or reasonable—it was whether it was discriminatory. Accordingly, the EEOC argued that Jones’ dreadlocks were a part of her racial identity and therefore “to ban the wearing of dreadlocks … discriminates on the basis of race.” As the court rightly ruled, this was a stretch: The argument wasn’t that the employer discriminated by applying the dress code disproportionately to black job applicants and employees or that the dress code was just a way of getting rid of black employees. The claim was that prohibiting dreadlocks—even as part of a much broader requirement of professional attire and grooming—was race discrimination per se because dreadlocks are a part of black identity in the same the way that, say, dark skin or curly hair might be thought to be. But if dreadlocks aren’t part of racial identity—if they are more like a fashion choice—then banning them is no different than banning purple hair or handlebar mustaches, neither of which is unlawfully discriminatory.
Jones’ discrimination claim also posed an important conceptual question: Is race a biological category defined by things like skin color, hair texture, or facial features? Or—as many social theorists and philosophers now insist—is race a social construct that many people associate with things like accents, comportment, dress, grooming, and hairstyles? This case was unusual because the appeals court addressed this philosophical question head on.
The court discovered that although most theorists agree that race is more than just biology, the court didn’t agree on exactly what else it is. That’s why the court adopted an argument I made in my book Racial Culture: Courts should give up on trying to figure out what counts as race. For every person like Jones who feels dreadlocks are part of her racial identity, there is someone who thinks dreadlocks are just a fashion statement. If dreadlocks are part of black identity, what else is? Sagging jeans, which are often associated with young black men? Those bizarre gold teeth grillz that some black rappers wear? Do-rags? Are these things really part of black culture, or are they really part of a subculture, in the same way plaid flannel shirts and bushy Grizzly Adams beards might be considered part of hipster culture as opposed to white culture? Is a dress code that bans sagging, grillz, and do-rags racially discriminatory per se? That might surprise the administration of the venerable historically black college Morehouse, which has a dress code that bans sagging jeans, do-rags, and “decorative orthodontic appliances.” And what about white people who have dreadlocks? Are they celebrating multiculturalism, are they guilty of “cultural appropriation,” or are they just making a fashion choice?
Source: No Dreadlocks for You – Slate