Commentary

CROWN Act resistance shows how far Louisiana has to go after Plessy pardon

Lawmakers have said they will bring the bill back this year

January 12, 2022 1:56 pm
Portrait of a young black woman in a business suit

A dozen states have approved versions of the CROWN Act, which outlaws discrimination against people for natural hairstyles. (Shutterstock photo)

It would be easy for Louisiana to label last week’s posthumous pardon of Homer Plessy as a symbolic and historic moment in the state’s racial reckoning and simply move on, with everyone patting one another on the back for the notable accomplishment. 

But the true measure of progress is recognizing the work that still has to be done, and whether state leaders are willing to tackle it.  

There’s widespread agreement that the U.S. Supreme Court decision 125 years ago to uphold Plessy’s arrest for boarding the “whites-only” section of a train stands as one of the worst rulings in history. It would take six more decades before justices to do away with the “separate but equal” provisions in law for which the Plessy ruling paved the way. 

A recent debate in the Louisiana Legislature revealed a similar reluctance to distance the state from its segregated, Jim Crow past. It didn’t grab headlines like Plessy or non-unanimous juries. But it was no less troubling and just as legally complex.

Last year, three state lawmakers sponsored versions of the CROWN Act (short for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair). It would prohibit workplace and educational discrimination against individuals for wearing their hair naturally, 

Specifically, Black employees would not risk losing their jobs if they kept their hair as it naturally grows from their scalp. Protective hairstyles such as braids, locs, twists and Bantu knots were included. An employer also could not force someone to chemically treat or straighten their hair under the proposal. 

All three CROWN Act bills failed in the Louisiana Legislature last year. Former senator Troy Carter (D-New Orleans) got unanimous approval for his proposal from the Senate, but it failed to get out a House committee. It was one of Carter’s final legislative efforts before he assumed his seat in Congress.

Rep. Candace Newell (D-New Orleans) sponsored another version that was rejected on the House floor with a 46-48 vote. She has indicated she would bring a new CROWN Act proposal forward this year, as did Rep. Tammy Phelps (D-Shreveport), whose bill didn’t get out of committee.

Proponents of the CROWN Act insist it would not override workplace safety regulations. So far, a dozen states have approved versions of the law. New Orleans and Shreveport have enacted ordinances at the city level. There are no indications yet that employers in these states or cities have had to make dramatic changes to workplace policy in regards to professional appearance. In addition, there have been few if any legal challenges from companies where the CROWN Act has been put in place.

When Newell’s bill was in committee, Rep. Larry Freiman (R-Abita Springs) raised concerns that her proposal amounted to “over-legislating” because laws are already in place against discrimination. However, the laws do not cover natural hairstyles with direct links to a person’s race. For example, a workplace ban against locs would inordinately apply to Black employees and could potentially be an illegal exclusion.

The bigger concern here is when lawmakers cloak race-based opposition in the guise of being pro-business.

When Carter presented his bill to a House committee, Rep. Dodie Horton (R-Haughton) said she had concerns over taking “a business’ ability away to create their own standards, no matter who it is.”

There are two main reasons there hasn’t been vocal resistance to the CROWN Act from the business community. One, it would be far too damaging politically. Secondly, this just isn’t a big issue for employers. The issue, particularly in the current labor climate, is whether someone can actually perform their job and show up for work on time.

The bigger concern here is when lawmakers cloak race-based opposition in the guise of being pro-business. It’s one thing to create a friendly environment where employers can thrive. It’s quite another to endorse state-sanctioned bias.    

As long as Louisiana keeps plucking away at the CROWN Act, there will be no momentum behind the reckoning train that finally rolled with Plessy’s pardon.

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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.

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