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Discrimination Against Black Hairstyles Is Now Illegal

Andrew I. Bart in Legal/Financial on March 19, 2019

New York City

Black Hair
March 19, 2019

While the members of your co-op or condo board may not be familiar with the black hairstyles known as locs or Bantu knots, you now need to become aware of them so as to protect your co-op or condominium from possible lawsuits and fines.

Last month, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued guidelines regarding racial discrimination on the basis of hairstyles, with a particular focus on the hair of black people. The commission reaffirmed the rights of all New Yorkers to maintain hairstyles associated with their cultural, racial, or ethnic identities. For black people, this means the right to maintain treated or untreated hairstyles, as well as the right to keep hair either in an uncut or untrimmed state.

The city’s Human Rights Law prohibits, among other things, discrimination practices in employment, and it covers employers with four or more employees, including co-op and condo boards. An independent contractor who works “in furtherance of an employer’s business enterprise” is counted as an employee under the law. If your co-op or condominium hires independent contractors to maintain landscaping at your property, for example, there’s an argument to be made that those workers will count as employees under the Human Rights Law.

An individual claiming race discrimination can either file a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights within one year of the allegedly discriminatory act, or file a complaint in the state courts within three years of the allegedly discriminatory act. The law has teeth. The commission can fine a board up to $250,000, and there is no cap on damages.

The commission guidelines state that the hair textures and hairstyles most closely associated with people of African descent are “natural hair texture that is tightly coiled or tightly curled as well as hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, and Afros.” Such hairstyles are protected racial characteristics because the commission finds they are “an inherent part of black identity.” 

Boards can adopt a grooming policy that requires employees to maintain a “neat and orderly” appearance. Such a  policy would violate the Human Rights Law if it: prohibits the textures or hairstyles associated with people of African descent; requires employees to alter their hair to conform to appearance standards, including having to straighten or relax hair; bans hair extending a certain number of inches from the scalp; bans dying or head-shaving only by black employees; requires a black employee to hide his or her hair under a hat or cap; requires black employees to cut or alter their hair or risk losing their jobs.

While there is no “magic bullet” to protect a co-op or condominium from a potential lawsuit, boards should make sure that any grooming policy is applied uniformly. For example, it would be acceptable to require all front-door personnel, regardless of race or gender, to wear a cap.

With its high fines and potential for unlimited damages, this is not a law boards can afford to flout. Consult an attorney with any questions or concerns you may have and for the best ways to protect your co-op or condominium.

Andrew I. Bart is an associate at the law firm Borah, Goldstein, Altschuler, Nahins & Goidel.

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