Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

In 2010, when Chastity Jones went in for a job interview at a call center for Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) in Mobile, Alabama, she wore a blue suit and short dreadlocks. She met the requirements for the job, excelled in the interview, and was offered the position on the spot. But when she was asked by the company to fill out paperwork for the job, a human-resources manager noticed her hair and, according to court documents, told her that CMS couldn’t hire her “with the dreadlocks.” The manager added, “They tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” Faced with the choice of changing her hairstyle or losing the job, Jones returned the paperwork and left the building.

At the time, CMS’s grooming policy stated that employees were “expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image.” Further, wearing “excessive hairstyles or unusual colors” was deemed unacceptable because one’s “hairstyle should reflect a business/professional image.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), maintaining that Jones had been discriminated against under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, took her case to a district court. After years of protests against Jim Crow, Congress passed Title VII to prevent employers from discriminating based on someone’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” and the EEOC reasoned that the “concept of race encompasses cultural characteristics related to race and ethnicity,” such as dreadlocks, which, it noted, are “common for black people and suitable for black hair texture.” (Although it’s not known how widespread the practice is, other employers have chosen not to hire or have fired employees for having dreadlocks and other hairstyles.)

The district court sided with CMS in the spring of 2014, and the EEOC appealed later that year. This September, when the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled on the case, it unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision that CMS was within its rights to offer Jones an ultimatum based on her hairstyle and ruled that dreadlocks are not a fixed or “immutable characteristic of black persons.” The decision means that businesses can legally fire employees or turn away job applicants simply for having dreadlocks. The appeals court found that CMS did not intend to discriminate against all African Americans, but the justices would not consider whether the dress-code policy had a disparate impact on African Americans. In the court’s view, anyone can make a choice to have dreadlocks, and choosing to have them means accepting a decreased probability of getting hired for certain jobs.

How was CMS able to win a federal court’s approval to reject out of hand a hairstyle that so many African Americans wear? By relying on some well-established legal precedents as well as some outdated notions of race.

While, biologically speaking, racial groups do not exist, it is important to recognize the ways people believe them to exist as a combination of immutable (biological) and mutable (cultural) characteristics. The appeals-court judges who heard the EEOC’s case made clear that they knew race to be socially constructed and even cited some academic discussions by leading social scientists in their ruling. But while the justices acknowledged that race “has no biological definition,” they went right back to declare that the word “race” in Title VII only covers immutable factors. They determined that dreadlocks were manipulated or created as a part of one’s culture—not one’s biology—and therefore the right to wear them at all times could not be legally protected under the Civil Rights Act.

This narrow view of equal protection under the law ignores that systematic and individual acts of discrimination against certain racial groups are often based on both physiological and cultural attributes associated with one’s so-called “race.” The danger here is that a federal court has now signed off on some forms of such discrimination, and its ruling will stand unless the EEOC decides to pursue the case further in hopes of a reversal.

The circuit-court judges supported their biological-race argument on two preceding legal decisions by the Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. The first case, 1975’s Willingham v. Macon Telegraph Publishing Company, declared that businesses could refuse to hire men with long hair. This lawsuit set a precedent for hair as a mutable feature not protected under Title VII. Later cases followed this logic and supported companies that sought to exclude people with other hairstyles, including braids, facial hair, and cornrows. As a result of Willingham, it can be legal for employers to consider hair as a factor when hiring or firing employees.

The second federal case that the court rested its decision on was a case from 1980, Garcia v. Gloor. The case centered on the Gloor Lumber Company, in Brownsville, Texas, which had fired a bilingual employee, Hector Garcia, after he spoke to a coworker in Spanish and violated the company’s English-only policy. A federal court decided that such a policy wasn’t prohibited by the “national origin” protection of Title VII. The court reasoned that even though Garcia was Mexican American, he made the choice to speak Spanish with his coworker, and that counted as a mutable cultural characteristic. The judges ruling on Jones’s case noted that Garcia “was allowed to speak Spanish during breaks” and took care to note that “national origin” was not to be confused with “ethnic or sociocultural traits or an unrelated status, such as citizenship or alienage.” In short, courts found in favor of both Gloor Lumber Company and CMS because, the judges argued, Title VII does not protect the culture of its employees—just their inborn traits.

But, aside from being a rule that falls disproportionately on African American workers, a ban on dreadlocks carries some jarring historical resonances. Hair has for centuries been both a site of pride and punishment for African Americans, who have over the years fashioned unique styles from a blend of African, European, and Native American cultural traditions. In the book Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit, the historians Shane White and Graham White describe how hairstyles were an important form of self-expression for slaves when they had little control over their own bodies. They often took Sundays to meticulously prepare their hair for the week and helped do each other’s hair, sharing in a communal activity that continues today in American barbershops, salons, and homes. Years ago, slave owners degraded African hair by referring to it as “wool,” and some masters cut the hair of unruly slaves or shaved women’s heads to castigate and demean them.

After the end of slavery, many African Americans began attempting to alter the natural texture of their hair, using chemical relaxers or hot combs in order to mimic the appearance of straight European hair. Many of these methods remain in use (and have been updated as technology improved), but the cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s also persuaded more African Americans to begin embracing hairstyles that didn’t require them to transform the texture of their natural hair, such as Afros, braids, and dreadlocks. Some of these popular coiffures had roots dating back hundreds of years, while others, such as dreadlocks, drew from more recent Afro-Caribbean traditions. And similar movements, centered on creating a more inclusive and diverse concept of beauty—for hair and beyond—continue to gain traction today.

So, when Chastity Jones refused to cut her hair, she was resisting cultural pressures not just from the 21st-century, but from hundreds of years before her. While the judges claimed to “respect that intensely personal decision and all it entails,” they still rejected the claim that Jones’s rights had been violated—evidence that economic incentives still exist for African Americans, and others, to conform.

This story is part of our Next America: Workforce project, which is supported by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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