Black lawmaker wearing her hair natural fights for right of all Black women to do the same

By: - May 17, 2021 6:52 pm

Rep. Candance Newell (D-New Orleans) testifies in favor of her bill that protects against discrimination based on hair styles. (Courtesy of Louisiana Legislature archives)

A bill that would prohibit race-based discrimination of natural hairstyles narrowly advanced through Civil Law and Procedure by a 8-7 vote, with Chairman Gregory Miller (R-Norco) casting the tiebreaking vote.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Candance Newell (D-New Orleans), would protect people from discrimination in any form because of “natural hairstyles and protective hairstyles,” including afros, dreadlocks, twists, locs, braids, cornrow braids, Bantu knots, and curls.

Newell told the committee “I did not believe that a person should be discriminated against based on the way their hair grows naturally out of their scalp.”

Newell testified that when she had a job interview, she “had to determine whether or not I would go as ‘myself’ — what you see today — or if I was to sit and let a stylist put heat and chemicals in my hair to straighten it.”

Newell said HB382 is apart of the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) — a national campaign that began in 2019 as a collaboration between the soap manufacturer Dove and three nonprofits: the National Urban League, Color Of Change, and Western Center on Law and Poverty. The campaign is based on the argument that people ought to be allowed to keep their hair the same texture it naturally grows out of their heads. More specifically, the campaign argues that Black women should not be forced by their employers to use chemicals to straighten their hair. 

California passed the first CROWN Act in 2019, and nine other states have followed. The campaign started the year after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a Black woman’s complaint that she had been racially discriminated against by a company that cited her short dreadlocks as a reason not to hire her.

Rep. Larry Frieman (R-Abita Springs) said to Newell her bill was an example of lawmakers “over-legislating” since discrimination laws already protect against race discrimination.

Newell said there was a recent court case where a Black woman was fired because her hair was deemed unprofessional and sued her former employer. She lost, Newell said, because her hairstyle wasn’t protected by current discrimination laws.

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Pineville) said he was concerned factories or companies that required their employees to have short hair for safety reasons, such as operating factory machinery, could be sued if this bill passed.

Newell said her bill doesn’t interfere with requirements set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s. Rep. Joseph Marino (I-Gretna) said “safety overrides discrimination if there’s a reason.”

“As a firefighter, they don’t allow you to have a beard because it won’t seal the mask,” Marino said to Johnson.

Representatives Frieman, Beryl Amedee (R-Houma), Valarie Hodges (R-Denham Springs), Nicholas Muscarello (R-Hammond), Richard Nelson (R-Mandeville), Laurie Schlegel (R-Jefferson) and Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) opposed the bill.

Voting in favor of the bill were representatives Marino, Johnson, Robby Carter (D-Aimite), Wilford Carter (D-Lake Charles), Patrick Jefferson (D-Homer), Sam Jenkins (D-Shreveport) and Ed Larvadain (D-Alexandria).

The Senate unanimously passed similar legislation, also included in the CROWN Act, SB 61 which would make it unlawful for employers to deny employment or make restrictions based on hairstyles that are natural for one’s particular race, including traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to hair texture and “protective hairstyles” such as braids, locs and twists, among others. 

SB 61 and HB 382 will next be debated on the House floor.

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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is a former Louisiana Illuminator reporter. Prior to working with the Illuminator, Canicosa worked for Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon. Canicosa earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.