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Lakes area lawmakers split on hair discrimination bill

Reps. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, and Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, cast nay votes Feb. 28 on the House floor for legislation known as the CROWN Act, which would clarify the definition of race in the Minnesota Human Rights Act to be inclusive of traits such as hair texture and protective hairstyles like braids, locks and twists.

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BRAINERD — Two lakes area legislators were in the minority of Minnesota House Republicans in voting against a bill seeking to ban the practice of race-based hair discrimination in the state.

Reps. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, and Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, cast nay votes Feb. 28 on the House floor for legislation known as the CROWN Act, which would clarify the definition of race in the Minnesota Human Rights Act to be inclusive of traits such as hair texture and protective hairstyles like braids, locks and twists.

The bill passed the House 104-26, gaining resounding bipartisan support including all 70 House DFLers and 34 Republicans. Among those voting in support was fellow lakes area legislator Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, while Republican Rep. Ron Kresha of Little Falls did not vote. Kresha said he was not in attendance that day as he was excused from the session due to scheduling and travel conflicts. Without participating in the floor debate on the bill, he declined to speculate how he would have voted.

Behind the bill

Bill author Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis, said during the floor session at the heart of the CROWN Act — which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” — is the ability to allow more people to show up as their authentic selves in school or in the workplace without fear of repercussion.

Headshot of Rep. Esther Agbaje
State Rep. Esther Agbaje.
Contributed

“As a Black woman, I have felt the societal pressures to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards and there’s a fear in not knowing how people will receive you or even accept you in your role as a professional,” Agbaje said. “By adding this clarifying definition to our law, we can proudly say that Minnesota is an inclusive state that wants everyone to thrive and not have the additional mental strain of worrying about their hair and perhaps turning to harmful straightening chemicals to fit in.”

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Agbaje cited an example of hair discrimination in Minnesota when an employer updated its policies to ban Afros, braids and dreadlocks without any safety or health reasons for the change. That employer denied Black employees the opportunity to cover their hair and proceeded to fire those who did not comply by changing their hairstyles, she said.

The Minnesota Legislature is one of more than 40 state legislative bodies that have enacted, filed or intend to introduce the CROWN Act , according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. A companion bill was introduced in the state Senate and was referred to the Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee. Also in late February, the U.S. House of Representatives took up a federal version of the bill, which was blocked by Republicans from gaining a two-thirds supermajority for passage.

By adding this clarifying definition to our law, we can proudly say that Minnesota is an inclusive state.
Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis

Advocates of the legislation point to the lack of federal protection against appearance-based discrimination, which they say acts as a modern-day conduit for racial prejudice. A study by the beauty company Dove, which is a corporate supporter of the CROWN Act, showed Black women were 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace than others because of their hairstyles.

Some may not be hired in the first place for hair-related reasons, and a lawsuit surrounding this particular circumstance made it to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 . In that case, a Black woman who wore short dreadlocks was hired as a customer service representative, but the company rescinded the offer when she refused to cut her hair. The appeals court ruled in favor of the employer and the matter was not reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, effectively making this kind of discrimination legal, the NAACP argues.

Agbaje and a number of people who testified on the bill noted it’s not only the outright discrimination at issue but also the pressure to conform or be seen as someone else’s definition of professional — a pressure beginning early in Black children’s lives. The same study by Dove indicated Black women were 80% more likely to alter their natural hairstyles in the workplace to achieve that professionalism standard.

“We can’t talk about diversity or racial justice and equity in the workplace without talking about discriminatory policies, such as a dress code and appearance code, which also prevents Black and brown people from accessing economic opportunities in addition to its impact on our mental health,” said Vachel Hudson, president of Urban League Young Professionals in the Twin Cities, during committee testimony. “We’re the only ethnic group who has to have a law to protect something that is already part of our DNA.”

Local legislators react

Josh Heintzeman
State Rep. Josh Heintzeman.
Contributed

During a March 4 phone interview, Lueck characterized the bill as an unnecessary legislative layer and virtue signaling that would lead to enrichment for trial lawyers. Reached by phone the same day, Heintzeman requested questions on the issue be sent to him by email, but as of Tuesday, March 15, he had not responded to multiple inquiries.

“At what point do we just simply say, ‘Hey, look, there is a place for those kinds of things to be adjudicated.’ There’s sufficient protection for both employees and employers,” Lueck said. “So you know, legislators are not going to go out there and solve stupid of an employer by passing another law, particularly one like this.”

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Dale Lueck
State Rep. Dale Lueck.
Contributed

Lueck said the bill was not the best use of legislators’ time when the state and world face numerous challenges, including the war in Ukraine and the taxpayer expense of the Southwest light rail project. Yet, he said no matter outside circumstances and events, his vote would not have changed.

“If nothing was going on, it was a perfectly calm day and there was peace all over the world, I still wouldn’t hesitate to vote against that bill, simply because it’s unnecessary,” Lueck said. “ … At what point are we going to be able to run out of paper if we’re going to pass a new law for every potential feature of the human body? I mean are we going to go to ears? Are we going to go to facial impressions? …

“And do you really think that that’s going to solve a fundamental human flaw that we’ve got people that are stupid about how they treat other people? Sometimes, you can’t fix stupid with a law.”

Poston said his decision to support the bill was a simple one and he called the protection long overdue. Before his retirement, Poston was vice president of store operations for Sally Beauty, which he said is the largest seller of Black hair care products in the world. Part of Poston’s job was working directly with salons and other cosmetology businesses.

John Poston
State Rep. John Poston.
Contributed

“I know for a fact that some of these hair textures and some of these hairstyles, … they do get discriminated against to a certain extent,” Poston said. “And for me, it was just a, really kind of a simple bill. … All it really says, when you boil it down and you get through all the language, is that you can’t discriminate against somebody because of their hair texture or their hairstyle.”

Poston said he believed the experiences of those who testified and was particularly troubled by the testimony citing employment discrimination. Poston noted the legislation carried no cost to taxpayers.

“We should all be looking past skin color and hair and those kinds of things and just looking for the best person to do the job,” he said. “ … I’m sure if it’s affecting grownups, it’s affecting their children, too.”

UPDATE: This story was updated to clarify the reason Rep. Ron Kresha did not vote on this bill.

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CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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