The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that an employer does not commit race discrimination by prohibiting African-American employees from wearing dreadlocks. See EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, No. 14-13482, 2016 WL 4916851.
Catastrophe Management Solutions (“CMS”) interviewed Chastity Jones for a position as a customer service representative. During the interview, Ms. Jones wore a blue business suit and wore her hair in short dreadlocks. During a meeting after the interview, CMS’s Human Resources Manager offered a group of employees (including Ms. Jones) positions as customer service representatives. After that meeting, Ms. Jones spoke to the HR Manager about scheduling issues, and the HR Manager informed Ms. Jones that CMS could not hire her “with the dreadlocks.” Allegedly, the HR Manager said: “they tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” When Ms. Jones refused to cut her hair, the HR Manager requested that Ms. Jones return her hiring paperwork.
CMS had a race-neutral grooming policy which read as follows: “All personnel are expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines…. [H]airstyle should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable[.]”
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued CMS for race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Eleventh Circuit recognized that the concept of “race” today might be different from the concept of race when Title VII was enacted in 1964. Indeed: “It may be that today ‘race’ is recognized as a ‘social construct’ … rather than an absolute biological truth.” Catastrophe Management Solutions, 206 WL 4916851 at *7. Nevertheless, the Court declined to adopt a more-contemporary concept of race: “But our possible currently reality does not tell us what the country’s collective zeitgeist was when Congress enacted Title VII half a century ago. ‘That race is essentially only a very powerful idea and not at all a biological fact is, again, an emerging contemporary understanding of the meaning of race.'” Id.
Utilizing a contemporary concept of race, the EEOC argued that a ban on dreadlocks amounted to race discrimination: “black persons choose to wear dreadlocks because that hairstyle is historically, physiologically, and culturally associated with their race.” Id. at *9. But, the Eleventh Circuit rejected that argument by relying upon cases from the 1970’s holding “that Title VII protects against discrimination based upon immutable characteristics.” Id. at *8.
The court then extended that rationale to find that “Title VII protects person in covered categories with respect to their immutable characteristics, but not their cultural practices.” Id. at *9. The court concluded: “That dreadlocks are a ‘natural outgrowth’ of the texture of black hair does not make them an immutable characteristic of race.” Id. “[D]iscrimination on the basis of black hair texture (an immutable characteristic) is prohibited by Title VII, while adverse action on the basis of black hairstyle (a mutable choice) is not.” Id.
Catastrophe Management Solutions should not be interpreted as carte blanche authority for employers to terminate African-American employees on the basis of hairstyle. In fact, the Eleventh Circuit recognized that “the distinction between immutable and mutable characteristics of race can sometimes be a fine (and difficult) one ….” Nevertheless, this case provides employers with increased protection if they possess a race-neutral grooming policy which is uniformly enforced without regard to race.