New Jersey Law Against Discrimination Extends to Hair-Based Discrimination

The state of New Jersey has a well-deserved reputation for proactively protecting its citizens from discrimination and unfair treatment based on their membership in a protected class. The law was first passed in 1945, and since that time it has proven to be highly dynamic and open to evolution in the interests of preventing and eliminating discrimination. One of the most recent enhancements to the NJLAD has been the inclusion of protection against discrimination based on racial or religiously associated hairstyles.

Hair styles, hair management and hair textures can be associated with a variety of religions and races, but workplace prohibitions against specific hairstyles have a particular and insidious history of having been used to discriminate against black people. Employers have pointed to traditional white European standards of beauty as the only way to demonstrate professionalism or what is considered acceptable or appropriate. Hairstyles associated with black hair texture, culture or religion — including Afros, dreadlocks, twists, braids, Bantu knots, or cornrows — have been identified as “unkempt,” “unhygienic,” and “unprofessional.” This has furthered racial stereotypes and worked to keep blacks from achieving equality in the workplace.

This practice has also been used to discriminate against blacks in the workplace, in housing and in other areas. Black people have been denied employment, promotions, or equal pay, and have been subjected to harassment and other types of discrimination based on wearing hairstyles associated with being black.
The news has been filled with examples of black hair discrimination in New Jersey and around the country:

• A 16-year-old New Jersey high school wrestler was forced by a referee to cut off his dreadlocks in order to participate in a match.
• A seven-year-old Florida boy was denied entry to a private school because of his dreadlocks.
• An Alabama woman found her customer service job offer rescinded after she refused to cut off her dreadlocks.

Under the auspices of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the state of New Jersey joins several other states in recognizing that discrimination based on hairstyles is a form of racial profiling and stereotyping that has long been used to deny equal opportunities to Black people. In addition to causing economic and psychological harm, hair rules that force black people to change the texture of their hair can cause physical damage and impose unnecessary and burdensome financial costs, including the costs of straightening hair or purchasing wigs, or the physical pain and potential scarring caused by chemical hair-straightening treatments.

In recognizing that hair texture and style is “inextricably intertwined” with racial identity, and especially with black identity, the state has extended hair as a protected characteristic under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, and prohibits it along with any other type of discrimination based on stereotypes. Employers are expected to make their determinations on hiring, promotion, compensation and treatment based on skills, knowledge and experience, and are legally prohibited from taking actions or treating people in a discriminatory way based on their membership in a protected class. Employers are not permitted to make a hiring decision about a Jewish person based on their wearing of a yarmulke or a handicapped person based on their disability as long as those individuals are able to perform the job’s required duties. Similarly they are not permitted to refuse to hire somebody or to treat them differently within their organization because they wear their hair in an Afro, or in braids, dreadlocks, or any other style associated with a protected class.

Some employers have argued that their rules are not racially discriminatory, and that rules around hair length or management are oriented around professionalism, health or safety. The question that NJLAD raises in response to these defenses is whether the law is enforced equally across all races: if a black person is required to keep their hair in a hairnet but a white employee with long hair is not, then the treatment is not equal under the law and the disparate treatment represents unlawful discrimination.

If you have been discriminated against based upon your hair, there is a very good chance that you can file a claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. To set up an appointment to discuss your situation, contact our office today.

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