Massachusetts became the 18th state to outlaw Black hair discrimination. Here’s the tangled history of the CROWN Act

The CROWN Act outlaws racial discrimination based on a person’s natural hair.

Historically, hair and other physical features have been treated as proxies for race in America.

18 US states have enacted the CROWN Act so far.

In April 2017, Mya and Deanna Cook, two Black high school students in Massachusetts, were banned from all extracurricular activities at their school, including prom. The reason? Their hair.

After the Cook sisters refused to remove their braided hair extensions, the school slapped multiple hours of detention on them and threatened to suspend them for violating hair and makeup policies.

The Cooks fought back. Students, parents, organizations, and the Massachusetts attorney general rallied against the school, condemning its rules as discriminatory and in violation of both state and federal laws.

“To the extent that certain provisions of [the school’s] policy have the purpose or effect of singling out students of color, they are clearly unlawful,” the letter stated.

Public pressure paid off. In July, Massachusetts became the 18th state to sign the CROWN Act into law, giving protections to more than 500,000 Black citizens in the state against race-based hair discrimination.

Massachusetts is the latest success of a nationwide movement to protect Black communities from being punished at schools or work for their hair. It’s also a step toward addressing a long history of discrimination against communities of color for their appearances.The history of the natural hair movement

The Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act emerged in June 2019, when California became the first state to outlaw racial discrimination based on people’s natural hairstyles.

“The history of our nation is riddled with laws and societal norms that equated ‘Blackness,’ and the associated physical traits, for example, dark skin, kinky and curly hair to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment,” the bill, also referred to as SB 188, states.

Discrimination against Black hairstyles in America can be traced back to the plantation era, when slaveowners dictated that their slaves’ hair look a certain way to look presentable for sale at the slave market, according to Howard Henderson, professor of justice administration at Texas Southern University.

“The dominant race established societal norms, and any deviation from those norms were labeled as unacceptable,” Henderson said. “It’s a historical legacy of oppression and policing Black decisions.”

The first wave of the natural hair movement emerged during the fight for civil rights in the 1950s as a counter to that legacy. Proponents of the “Black is Beautiful” movement encouraged Black men and women to embrace their skin, facial features, and natural hair — and to reclaim Black identity in doing so.

Prominent civil rights activist Angela Davis wore an afro as a sign of Black power and rebellion against white American beauty standards.Bettmann/Getty Images

The CROWN Act is an extension of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, in addition to ending segregation in public places and banning employment discrimination, also prohibited discrimination against afros. It did not, however, mention other natural hairstyles.Hair discrimination today

Hair discrimination still persists today. 45% of Black school girls ages 5 to 18 have experienced hair bias and discrimination, according to the 2021 Dove CROWN Research Study for Girls.

At the workplace, Black women were 1.5 times more likely to have reported having been sent home or know of a Black woman sent home from the workplace because of her hair, another Dove study found.

In 2010, Chastity Jones, a Black woman, lost her job offer at an Alabama company after she refused an HR request to cut her dreadlocks.

“They tend to get messy,” the company’s hiring manager allegedly told Jones.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on behalf of Jones in 2013, but the Alabama district court ruled it didn’t violate federal civil rights law.

“Hair discrimination is rooted in systemic racism, and its purpose is to preserve white spaces,” the NAACP said. “Policies that prohibit natural hairstyles, like afros, braids, bantu knots, and locs, have been used to justify the removal of Black children from classrooms, and Black adults from their employment.”The CROWN Act’s progress

Since California passed the CROWN Act in 2019, other states like New York, Washington, and Oregon have also signed the act into law. So far, 18 states have fully banned hair discrimination.

Six states, including Idaho, Ohio, and Montana, have not filed legislation that would ban such discrimination, though certain counties within some of those states have enacted it.

“There can be resistance from policymakers and constituents who wrongly believe that this form of racial discrimination African descendants frequently encounter does not exist,” D. Wendy Greene, a professor at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, said.

Other people who challenge the legislation might believe that prohibiting Black workers and students from wearing natural or protective hairstyles is a “minimal, harmless act of employer or administrative prerogative, which is simply not the case,” Greene told Insider.

“The CROWN Act is all about liberation and social transformation,” Henderson said. “It’s an opportunity for modern-day Black Americans to take a lead in the reconstruction process and express their independence from a history of oppression.”