Discrimination in employment on the basis of race or religion violates every antidiscrimination statute in the country. These are among the practices that brought on the passage of the first such laws decades ago. Despite a great deal of progress, much work remains to be done. As New York City employment discrimination attorneys, we have seen many ways that employers have subjected workers to adverse treatment because of race or religion, while making it seem like it has nothing to do with either. Whether this is intentional on employers’ part is not nearly as important as the impact it has on workers throughout the city and country. Hairstyle discrimination is a major area of ongoing race or religious discrimination that might not look like race or religious discrimination to many people. New York City issued guidance on this issue in 2019. The New York State Legislature included it in the state’s antidiscrimination law the same year. In early 2021, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (CHR) issued a final rule formalizing a ban on hairstyle discrimination.
The CHR issued guidance on hairstyle discrimination in February 2019. It interpreted the prohibitions on race and religious discrimination in the New York City Human Rights Law to protect workers’ right to “hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.” It noted that, for Black workers, employers’ policies on grooming and appearance can exclude their natural hair. Many Black workers have had to obtain expensive and damaging hair treatments simply to comply with their employers’ policies. It further noted that some communities “have a religious or cultural connection with uncut hair.”
While the CHR’s guidance document only expressed the agency’s interpretation of city law, state lawmakers made some of these protections explicit in the New York State Human Rights Law later in 2019. A bill signed by the governor that July added two new definitions to the statute. The term “race” now includes “traits historically associated with race,” with specific reference to “hair texture and protective hairstyles.” N.Y. Exec. L. § 292(37). “Protective hairstyles” includes “braids, locks, and twists.” Id. at § 292(38). The CHR’s guidance included additional examples, such as “cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, [and] fades.”