CROWN Act Likely to Come Out on Top

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery) and colleagues and activists speak Friday in favor of the CROWN Act. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

In February, Montgomery County became the first county in the U.S. to ban discrimination based on hairstyle.

Now, Maryland appears poised to join Virginia and a handful of other states that have taken similar action.

A measure patterned after a bill that passed the California legislature unanimously has already been approved by the Maryland Senate. On Friday a House committee heard testimony on a companion bill that has attracted support from 49 state Delegates.

The California measure was known as the CROWN Act –– an acronym for “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair.” Maryland advocates have adopted that name in referring to their bill.

A Friday news conference morphed into a natural hair rally and therapy session for lawmakers and staff — mostly women but a few men as well. They traded stories and commiserated over instances in which they have been forced to alter their natural hair texture or style to conform to a boss’s whim of what constitutes a “professional” look.

Others recounted unkind comments from strangers.

Del. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s), the vice-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, described an encounter in which someone “in Annapolis” asked if they could touch his trademark dreadlocks. He said no.

“It’s a very important issue,” said Del. Stephanie Smith (D-Baltimore City), chief sponsor of House Bill 1444 with Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery). “This is something we need to expel and end today.”

Wilkins said that while the law bans discrimination based on gender and race, it is silent on the issue of hair.

“The hair that grows out of my head, this ‘fro, every single curl, every single kink, it’s associated with my race,” she said. “Whether it comes to housing for black people, employment, or other public accommodations, we are at risk without our code being updated to reflect this kind of discrimination.”

The bill would expand the definition of race to include naturally occurring texture and style. It also defines “protective hairstyle” to include braids, twists, and locks.

A number of highly-publicized incidents have elevated the issue — include incidents in which young people were forced to change their hair before being allowed to accept a diploma or participate in a wrestling match.

Del. Nick J. Mosby (D-Baltimore City) said he developed an appreciation for the pressure women feel when he was growing up, “the youngest male in a house of six females.”

“I’ve had the fortune of watching women prepare for job interviews, prepare for college interviews, go on dates,” he said to laughter. “And the chemicals and the straighteners and the combs and the brushes that I have seen is unbelievable!”

Now a father who helps his two daughters with their hair, Mosby said he wants them to be able to go into the world “and to look the way that God intended them to look.”

On Wednesday, Virginia became the fourth state, after California, New York and New Jersey, to ban discrimination based on hair texture or style.

No one signed up to testify against Smith’s bill in the House Health and Government Operations Committee Friday.

The Senate measure, sponsored by Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), was co-sponsored by nearly half the chamber, including a handful of Republicans. It passed 46-0 on Feb. 28.

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