California now first state to ban racial discrimination against natural hair

The CROWN Act updates the state's anti-discrimination law so that "race" includes "traits historically associated with race," such as afros and braids.
Elicia Drayton, a hairstylist who specializes in braids, laughs with salon owner Stephanie Hunter-Ray, reflected in the mirror, at Exquisite U hair salon in Sacramento, California, on July 3, 2019.Kathleen Ronayne / AP
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By Doha Madani

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law Wednesday that would protect citizens against racial discrimination based on natural hairstyles, the first statewide law of its kind in the country.

The Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair Act, or CROWN Act, updates the state's anti-discrimination law so that the term "race" includes "traits historically associated with race." Both of the state's legislative chambers voted unanimously in favor of the act, which was introduced by state Sen. Holly Mitchell in January.

“In California, we celebrate the contributions of everyone — no matter where they are from, who they love, what language they speak, and, thanks to Sen. Mitchell, no matter how they wear their hair,” Newsom said Wednesday.

Legislators acknowledged in the measure's text that society has subjected certain features equated with “blackness” to unequal treatment.

"Workplace dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on Black individuals as these policies are more likely to deter Black applicants and burden or punish Black employees than any other group," the bill's text stated.

California's new measure is the first statewide ban on natural hair discrimination in the country. The New York City Commission on Human Rights passed similar protections in February, classifying restrictions on natural hair in workplaces, schools and public places as racial discrimination.

Mitchell said in a press release Wednesday that the CROWN act is "about inclusion, pride, and choice."

"This law protects the right of Black Californians to choose to wear their hair in its natural form, without pressure to conform to Eurocentric norms," Mitchell said. "I am so excited to see the culture change that will ensue from the law.”

The natural hair movement, which encourages black people to wear their hair in its normal, coiled, coarse or curly state, started when more people began shunning chemical relaxers and embracing their Afro-textured hair for health and cosmetic reasons.

Recent studies have linked the ingredients in relaxers, which chemically straighten hair, to uterine fibroids, cancer, and other illnesses. Mintel, a market research firm, estimates that retail sales of at-home relaxers declined 22.7 percent from 2016 to 2018.

Natural hairstyles, such as braids and dreadlocks, are also appealing because they can require minimal upkeep, although dreadlocks are often started on short hair and must be regularly maintained.

Doha Madani

Doha Madani is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.