Last week, in a panel decision, EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, the Eleventh Circuit held that employers can discriminate against employees for wearing their hair in dreadlocks. The lawsuit was brought by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission on behalf of a prospective employee who refused to comply with a company's grooming policy prohibiting employees from having dreadlocks. The EEOC contended that the defendant's refusal to hire the plaintiff was a form of race discrimination, because the hairstyle was one closely associated with individuals of African descent.
The Eleventh Circuit, affirming the lower court's decision to dismiss the case, held that the employer's conduct did not violate Title VII. It reasoned that-while wearing one's hair in dreadlocks was a cultural practice closely associated with a particular race- dreadlocks were not protected under Title VII, because one's hairstyle is a mutable characteristic. Immutable characteristics, like skin-color, are generally protected under Title VII when they are associated with a protected class, because employees are not able to change them. Mutable characteristics or cultural practices, on the other hand, have generally fallen outside of Title VII's protection, even when those characteristics are unique to a particular race or sex, because an employee has the power to change them.
The court in Catastrophe Management noted this longstanding dichotomy by pointing to several of its previous cases. In Willingham v. Macon Tel. Publ'g Co., for example, the court held that Title VII allowed employers to have a grooming policy that permitted women to wear their hair long, but prohibited men from doing so. Similarly, in Garcia v. Gloor, the court found that an employer did not violate Title VII for terminating a bilingual, Mexican employee for speaking Spanish while on the job. Thus, even if job policies are drawn along racial lines, they still may comply with Title VII if the employer chooses to discriminate on the basis of characteristics that an employee can easily change, such as hairstyle.
The EEOC fought this line of precedent by arguing that dreadlocks are formed naturally in a black person's hair without any manipulation. Additionally, the hairstyle itself has strong cultural ties to African-American history dating back to the slave trade. According to the EEOC's complaint, during the forced transportation of slaves across the ocean their hair would become matted with blood, feces, urine, sweat, tears and dirt, causing some slave traders to refer to the slave's hair as "dreadful". The EEOC argued that race was a concept that included more than the color of one's skin, but should also include deeply-ingrained cultural practices.
Ultimately, while sympathetic to the EEOC's position, the court found that an expanded definition of race was too ambiguous to work in the legal field given the multiplicitous definitions of race circulating in modern academia. It noted that courts should generally stick to interpreting Title VII as congress intended it and not "with grading competing doctoral theses in anthropology and sociology."
This case is significant in that it marks another step in a recent trend by the EEOC of adopting expansive interpretations of Title VII. The court noted that the EEOC's position in this case contradicted one it had taken in a prior case less than ten years ago. While this decision may have narrowed the Title VII's definition of race, it is likely we will see more decisions interpreting the statute in new ways in the future.