Does a policy that prohibits employees from wearing dreadlocks discriminate against African-Americans? According to one federal court, in EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions [pdf], the answer is no.
CMS maintained the following policy, which it interpreted to prohibit employees from wearing dreadlocks:
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 … hairstyles should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable.
The EEOC claimed race discrimination following CMS’s rescission of a job offer after a job applicant refused to cut her dreadlocks. The court, however, disagreed, dismissing the EEOC’s lawsuit. The court made a key distinction between immutable, protected characteristics (such as race) and mutable, unprotected characteristics (such as hairstyle):
It has long been settled that employers’ grooming policies are outside the purview of Title VII…. The EEOC asserts that the policy itself was discriminatory because it was interpreted to prohibit dreadlocks, which is a hairstyle. Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of immutable characteristics, such as race, sex, color, or national origin. A hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic….
The court also refused to take the EEOC’s bait to equate culture to race:
According to the EEOC, the definition of race should encompass both physical and cultural characteristics, even when those cultural characteristics are not unique to a particular group. But as the defendant points out, to define race by non-unique cultural characteristics could lead to absurd results. For instance, a policy prohibiting dreadlocks would not apply to African Americans but would apply to whites. Moreover, culture and race are two distinct concepts….
Title VII does not protect against discrimination based on traits, even a trait that has a socio-cultural racial significance.
I’ve discussed dreadlock discrimination before, but in the context of religious discrimination. In this context, the court got this case 100% correct. Dreadlocks are not a “black” thing. Heck, if you saw any of the photos of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street movement, I can guarantee that you saw lots of photos of white folks with dreadlocks. Nevertheless, this case serves a good reminder that grooming policies remain high on the EEOC’s radar, even if they raise much more of an issue for national origin and religion than race.