LANSING — Michigan Senate voted 33-5 Tuesday to protect Michiganders with braids, locks and twists from discrimination, including being ordered to cut their hair by bosses or lose out on jobs because of their hairstyles.
The Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, known as the “CROWN Act,” would extend the state’s civil rights protections against racial discrimination to hairstyles and hair textures.
Sen. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, has championed the legislation since 2019, but the bill failed in previous years without getting a hearing.
“I was laughed out of rooms,” Anthony said on the floor, recalling the reaction she got when she first introduced the bill. “People told me and encouraged me to focus on issues that really matter, things of substance.”
That includes a mix of Republicans and Democrats, sometimes even Black people who the bill intends to help, she said.
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“We’ve had Democrats that have said, ‘Look … this is not an issue that is a winning issue for our party.’ We’ve had older African Americans, who have said, ‘Look, that ship has sailed,’” she told reporters following the Tuesday Senate session.
“There’s many rooms that we’ve been laughed out of,” she said. “But this isn’t one today.”
The bill will now head to the House. If passed, Michigan would join at least 20 states and Washington, D.C. with similar laws, according to the Virginia-based human resources association Society for Human Resource Management.
California was the first state to pass the CROWN Act in 2019. Similar legislation has been filed in a total of 24 states including Michigan, according to a tally by the CROWN Coalition, which is advocating for the legislation.
There are no federal protections against race-based hair discrimination. In March 2022, the CROWN Act passed the U.S. House but was blocked by Senate Republicans.
Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, said on the floor that Black hair has often been subject to “ridicule and oppression.”
“Black individuals who choose to embrace their natural hair face social, economical and professional consequences,” she said. “Their hair has been deemed unprofessional, unkept or even unhygienic, creating significant barriers to employment, education and social mobility.”
In 2021, a student and a school staffer in Mount Pleasant cut off the hair of a 7-year-old biracial girl, whose father filed a federal lawsuit claiming racial discrimination. In 2019, an 8-year-old girl in Jackson was barred from taking school pictures for having red hair extensions.
Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, was among five Republican lawmakers who voted against the bill.
Runestad said he takes issue with the bill language, which extends the definition of “race” in the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include, “but not limited to,” hair texture and hairstyles.
Runestad argued the bill could create “unintended consequences” by opening up the definition to interpretation.
“If you have an individual abusing this law … it can have a negative impact on a small business that needs to survive,” he said.
Black women with natural hairstyles face more hair discrimination, studies show.
Multiple studies conducted in 2020 by Michigan State University and Duke University show Black women with natural hair were seen as “less professional, less competent, and less likely to be recommended for a job interview” than their Black peers with straight hair or white women.
Black students are also more likely to face suspension over dress code or long hair violations, according to The Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based policy think tank.
“From bias in job recruitment, to Black children being restricted because of natural hairstyles likes braids worn in school, our community is subjected to race-based discrimination and scrutiny daily,” Donna Bell, co-chair of the state’s Black Leadership Advisory Council, said in a February statement in support of the legislation.
Some local governments in Michigan have already established policies to prevent hair-based discrimination. In 2021, Ingham County became the first Michigan county to pass a resolution banning race-based hair discrimination against all public employees.
Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, told reporters Tuesday she wore her hair straight during her first year in the state Legislature. She wears her natural hair now.
“I also subscribed to the belief that to be in a space such as (the state Capitol), especially this esteemed and revered space, that is what was necessary,” she said.
Anthony said while state lawmakers could pass legal protections this year, the cultural change might take longer.
“Hopefully these protections make it so that folks aren’t terminated or retaliated against or can enjoy all of the opportunities regardless of their hair,” she said.
The Tuesday vote marks Democrats’ latest effort to expand civil rights protections since they took over the majority in the state Legislature in January. Since then, Democrats have passed laws to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and someone’s decision to receive an abortion.