Articles Posted in Civil Rights

Employer dress codes aimed toward the legitimate business interests of professionalism, safety, hygiene and neatness are legal. However, natural hair or hairstyles associated with African Americans, such as dreadlocks, have been historically stereotyped and perceived as unprofessional against Euro-centric standards of beauty. A simple google search of “unprofessional hairstyles” reveals many images of African Americans in natural hair or braids. This sort of discrimination has subjected people across the United States to “dignitary, psychological, physiological, and financial harm.” Federal, state and local government entities have long recognized that policies which “discriminate against traditionally Black hairstyles… qualify as discrimination on the basis of race.” See EEOC Dec. No. 71-2444, 1971 WL 3898, (1971) (“the wearing of an Afro-American hair style by a Negro has been so appropriated as a cultural symbol by members of the Negro race as to make its suppression either an automatic badge of racial prejudice or a necessary abridgment of first amendment rights.”).

Recent increased incidents of discriminatory hair-grooming policies and practices directed towards people of color in schools and the workplace has brought renewed attention on this issue. For example, a white New Jersey referee forced a black high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks before a match or face disqualification; a 6 year boy in Florida was barred from attending a private Christian academy on his first day of school because his hair extended below his ears; and an 11 year old black girl was sent home from a private Roman catholic school in Louisiana because she broke a rule on wearing hair extensions. In 2018, “54 percent of reported bias incidents in New Jersey were motivated by the victim’s race, ethnicity, or national origin. Of those, approximately 72 percent were anti-Black.” See DCR Guidance

As a consequence of this uptick in hair based discriminatory conduct, a growing movement has developed to better protect Black employees from discrimination in the workplace based on hairstyle thereby recognizing the importance of hair to cultural identity and the historically discriminatory treatment people of color have received because of their natural hair. Indeed, this past summer Governor Gavin Newsom of California signed the Crown Act into law making it illegal in California to enforce dress code or grooming policies against hairstyles such as afros, braids, twists and locks.

Officers from the Sacramento Police Department in California were investigating a report of vandalism when they encountered Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old African American male in the backyard of his grandmother’s house. For reasons which defy logic and basic humanity, Stephon died in a hail of 20 rounds fired from police revolvers, 8 of the bullets hit Stephon; 6 of the bullets tore into his back from behind. Whether the officers responsible for executing Stephon are ever indicted on criminal charges is uncertain, but most certainly his family will have the right to pursue civil rights violation claims against the Sacramento Police Department and its responsible officers. This is because the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees freedom from overreaching and abusive conduct by our police and other public employees of federal, state, and local government. These same rights exist here in New Jersey.

 I. Constitutional Guarantees Against Police Abuse

The 4th Amendment and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution promise, respectively: