Kentucky Politics

A proposal that aims to tackle race-based discrimination overcame its first hurdle at Kentucky’s House of Representatives Thursday — after failing to gain support twice before.

Lawmakers in the Judiciary Committee voted to advance the CROWN Act. That stands for “Creating a respectful and open world for natural hair,” and the law would protect people who wear their hair with natural textures and styles, including braids, locks and twists.

Democratic Rep. Attica Scott of Louisville is the main sponsor of the bill, which targets anti-Black bias. While it’s widely applicable, the bill zeroes in on discrimination in schools and workplaces.

“Black students and students of color are disproportionately affected by school suspension and expulsion. No student should be met with discretionary discipline actions in school, especially when it comes to the way they wear their hair,” Scott said. “I wear a protective style because it is better for my health and wellness to not apply heat to my hair with the straightening comb or chemicals to my scalp.”

DAngelia McMilan is a student at Grace James Academy of Excellence in Louisville. At Thursday’s committee hearing, she told the members about a recent experience with hair discrimination and how it harmed her self-esteem.

“My hair defines me because it’s big, and it makes me more confident. But two weeks ago, my confidence was lost…my step coach told everyone they had to wear their hair straight in a ponytail,” McMilan said. “I was told that if my hair wasn’t straightened, I would stick out and look different from everyone else. This made me feel like the way my hair grows wasn’t good enough.”

Black students are more likely to be suspended from school for discretionary reasons like dress code or long hair restrictions, according to a 2021 Brookings Institute report.

And a 2020 Michigan State University and Duke University research study found that, when applying for jobs, Black women who wore their hair naturally in photos on sites like LinkedIn got fewer interview recommendations and were considered less professional.

The measure earned the bipartisan support of 14 lawmakers. Although two abstained, Republican Rep. Jennifer Decker of Shelbyville was the only one who voted against it.

“Our constitution in Kentucky and in the United States also does protect private property rights. And that would include the rights of employers to hire whom they want at their business, absent racial discrimination,” Decker said. “If we pass this bill we will be elevating hair preferences in style over the business owners’ rights to employ whom he or she desires.”

Kaili Moss, a legal fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, rebuked Decker’s claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides sufficient race-based protections. Moss said the federal law is too broad and open to interpretation.

“It allows for so many forms of elusive and covert…forms of discrimination to remain legal,” Moss said. “We have to think about the messages that we’re sending to our children and the messages that we send to people who want to do a good job…We shouldn’t police them with these arbitrary and covert and blatantly racist grooming standards and policies.”

This is Scott’s third time introducing the measure at the state legislature. Although lawmakers failed to advance her past proposals, Scott said she’s holding out hope that the movement’s traction across the country and some Kentucky localities would bolster this latest effort.

More than a dozen states, including Virginia, Connecticut and Delaware, have already passed the CROWN Act. In Kentucky, Covington became the first city to adopt natural hair protections at the local level in 2020. Last year, Louisville followed suit.

The legislation will next move to the full House for consideration.

Yasmine Jumaa is WFPL’s race and equity reporter.