A federal appellate court has ruled against the Obama administration’s claims that firing a black woman for wearing dreadlocks constitutes racial discrimination and the government agency representing the employee poses an interesting question: Would a woman wearing a hijab face the same fate? The answer is no. Muslims have more rights in the U.S. workplace than African Americans, it seems.
In the aftermath of several rulings protecting Muslim rights to wear religious head covers on the job, a black woman is being prohibited from sporting a hairstyle that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent. That constitutes racial discrimination, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the nation’s workplace discrimination laws. The agency filed the case in 2013 on behalf of an Alabama woman, Chastity Jones, who was told by an insurance claims processing company to cut her dreadlocks—long clumps of ungroomed hair, symbolizing the mane of the Lion of Judah—as part of its grooming policy. The EEOC argued that the company, Catastrophe Management Solutions, committed racial discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In announcing the lawsuit, the agency’s regional attorney in Birmingham said the litigation didn’t seek to attack policies requiring employees to maintain hair in a professional, neat or conservative manner but rather focus “on the racial bias that may occur when specific hair constructs and styles are singled out for different treatment because they do not conform to normative standers for other races.” The EEOC’s district director pointed out that “generally, there are racial distinctions in the natural texture of black and non-black hair. The EEOC will not tolerate employment discrimination against African-American employees because they choose to wear and display the natural texture of their hair, manage and style their hair in a manner amenable to it, or manage and style their hair in a manner differently from non-blacks.”
A federal judge in Alabama didn’t buy the government’s seemingly far-fetched argument and in 2014 dismissed the race discrimination suit, finding that the company’s hairstyle policy did not violate federal anti-discrimination law. In his ruling the judge, Charles R. Butler, wrote that since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act only prohibits discrimination based on unchangeable characteristics, like sex and race, the company didn’t violate the law by banning the hairstyle. The Obama administration appealed and this month the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Alabama judge’s decision, rejecting Jones’s right to keep the dreadlocks. The appellate court found that Catastrophe Management Solutions has a “race-neutral grooming policy” and that hairstyles are not “immutable physical characteristics,” though the court acknowledged they could be “culturally associated with race.”
On the EEOC’s twitter account, which is embedded in the agency’s official website, an official comments on the Jones case: “I wonder if a woman who wore a hijab would have been asked to not wear that when coming to work?” The EEOC post was written by a black official named Michelle Adams, who also includes a clip from a 1990s television comedy sitcom because it reminds her of Jones’s “choice to fight” the dreadlock ban (the reality is that taxpayers funded the fight because a federal agency represented Jones). In the TV clip a black male employee tells white managers that his hair is not just for fashion. “It’s part of my heritage,” the actor says. “It’s a statement of pride.”
The question comparing dreadlocks to hijabs was rhetorical because the EEOC employee knows Muslims have a legal right to wear religious head covers at work thanks to litigation initiated by her agency. Judicial Watch has reported on some of the cases, including a 2013 federal court ruling that a Muslim woman’s civil rights were violated by an American clothing retailer that didn’t allow her to wear a hijab at work. As it has in other instances, the EEOC accused the retailer of religious discrimination under the Civil Rights Act and a federal judge agreed. In the ruling the judge wrote that the retailer acted with malice and reckless indifference by forcing the Muslim woman to remove her hijab, even though it had a company-wide policy prohibiting all types head cover.
The religious rights argument has also been used by the EEOC on behalf of dreadlocks. Over the summer the EEOC sued a private business for religious discrimination after it ordered a male employee to cut his dreadlocks. The man, a prep cook in central Florida, is Rastafari and the “Afrocentric” religion born in the slums of Jamaica requires followers to have long, matted and knotted hair. Judicial Watch will monitor the outcome of the case, which was filed in July. There is no formal, organized leadership in Rastafarianism which makes it difficult to accept as an official religion protected by federal law. Rastafarians believe Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia, is God and that he’ll help blacks living in exile as a result of the slave trade return to Africa. Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley, who died in Miami in 1981, was among the best known Rastafarians and more recently a famous rapper known as Snoop Dogg became Rastafari and changed his name to Snoop Lion, according to a mainstream news report. “A key belief for Rastas is the notion of death to all white and black oppressors,” the story says, adding that “the most common outward expressions of Rastafari are Rastas’ dreadlocks, penchant for smoking marijuana and vegetarian diets.”