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Social Welfare Policy is the collective response to social problems, but what if the policy isn’t upheld or enforced in a court of law? This is typically the case with America’s insurmountable, unlawful offenses against black and brown folks – more specifically, workplace discrimination. This is a matter of social policy because anti-blackness has literally been written into and enforced by the laws of this land. Since the end of slavery, white America has been finding new, innovative ways to maintain the status quo via marginalization and erasure of blackness. Black women’s hair has been rejected in the military, schools and has been culturally labeled as inappropriate for a place of business. It is inherently violent to exclude someone from the opportunity to provide for themselves on the basis of phenotypical traits – especially in a capitalist society, but in order to understand why, we must first dig into America’s history with black hair.
The end of The Civil War and new economic opportunities brought many newly freed slaves to New Orleans. This led to a rise in the free population and interracial relationships. “Charles III of Spain demanded that the colonial governor of Louisiana ‘establish public order and proper standards of morality,’ with specific reference to a ‘large class of ‘mulattos’ and particularly ‘mulatto’ women.” Hair and the way we style it has always been a cultural pillar in black communities. It has been used in African tradition to denote tribal hierarchy, braids were used to secretly map out freedom routes and to this day, we have hair shows that showcase intricate and unorthodox styles. At the time of Charles III’s request, black women were known to have detailed and bedazzled hairstyles which made them look more regal than colonizers were willing to allow. In turn, Governor Don Esteban Miró introduced the Tignon Laws. Journalist Jameelah Nasheed explained, this law “prohibited Creole women of color from displaying ‘excessive attention to dress’ in the streets of New Orleans.” Black women were forced to wear headscarves (or tignons) to clearly indicate that they were of the lower class. These laws were dissolved in 1803 due to the Louisiana Purchase, but they had already left their marks on societal standards. Soon after, many black women began straightening their hair to keep up with America’s Eurocentric beauty standards. Luckily, Black pride movements brought about a new wave of resistance and during the 60s and 70s afros became a statement. The act of living so freely in a country that would rather you were dead was revolutionary in itself.
There are many layers to America’s sketchy past with black hair. Firstly, and perhaps the most obvious, racism and white privilege. Due to the standards set by the previous 200 years of genocidal enslavement and dehumanization of black people, colonizers still felt entitled to policing black bodies. White America continuously looks to oppress, suppress and, quite literally, suffocate blackness, but the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forced this discrimination to be carried out in more covertly clever ways. One way, was (and still is) introducing workplace policies that disproportionately affected certain groups – the most common being policies related to black hairstyles. Secondly, using cultural markers to make employment decisions is a way to perpetuate poverty of black people and keep the elites (white, cis-gendered, straight, conservative men) as the gatekeepers of black wealth or the lack thereof. To this day black people “own little if any of America’s land, produce little if any of the country’s resources, and possess negligible amounts of this nation’s immense wealth.”
I used to think cases of workplace discrimination against black hairstyles were easy lawsuits to win, as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Although, Title VII does not contain a definition of race, according to The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, race discrimination includes discrimination based on ancestry or physical or cultural characteristics associated with a certain race, such as skin color, hair texture or styles, or certain facial features. I now realize that the same way society found loopholes to continue discrimination, judges also found loopholes to deem said discrimination constitutional. ADD
In the case of hair discrimination in the workplace, individuals of the African diaspora are the main people targeted. Black people make up almost 15% of America and this prejudice transcends gender and geographical locations, as anti-blackness is global. In this country the working age is 14, so this has the potential to affect any black person who is legally of age to work.
In addition to systemic factors, the values and beliefs that influence them are just as responsible for these injustices. One set of conflicting values that influences the discrimination of black hair in the workplace is Rationality v. Emotions. Black people are often depicted as criminals, dirty and dangerous, so often that white people have traditionally weaponized police against innocent people of color and police have yet to cease killing unarmed black people; it’s not that the black individual did anything menacing, but that culturally we’ve always been depicted as savages. Irrational fear that’s rooted in the white imagination has manifested itself into “works of art” like D.W. Griffith’s BOAN which was regarded with so much prestige that it earned a white house screening. This ties into another set of conflicting values known as Deserving v. Undeserving which refers to how we each determine who does and does not deserve our help or for society to help, so in a country that has dehumanized black people for centuries, the general population inherently sees black people as the undeserving. Furthermore, it speaks to the idea of Helping Those You Know v. Helping Those You Don’t Know. People are more likely to help people that they relate to in one way or another, but after being marginalized for so long it’s hard for most of society to identify with black people.
Values and beliefs help form ideologies and theories about how the system is run. The biggest one at play is the Elite Power theory which states that a handful of the people determine the country’s policies and that they’re ultimately decided by those that control the resources. I believe that this theory has its origins in both the Culture of Poverty and Biological Determinism theories. The Culture of Poverty theory basically explains that if you’re born poor you will die poor and Biological Determinism pulls from Darwin’s theory in a sense where certain races are just naturally seen as “less than”. Those have also played into the Social Constructs and Social Control theories.
In my critical analysis of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the people with the power are those who fit the European standard of beauty and those who do not fit that standard more specifically those with kinkier, curlier, or those with a tighter curl patter are the people without power. Evaluating the public reaction to the problem will depend on who you ask. The general public has never sided with the rights of black or brown folks. That’s why there is always a “fight” for equality. According to LaGuardia’s CUNY EDGE program black hair erasure isn’t occurring and most people will agree that natural black hair is “unkempt” without stretching or straightening. As far as the public reaction to policy, I think the majority would say these rulings are perfectly reasonable because those black women should have just worn their tignons and that racism is only a thing of the past. I was under the impression that this policy was implemented to stop discrimination, as it specifically states that you cannot be discriminated against on the basis of race and gender, but the court rulings seem to prove otherwise. This was put forth as amendments to the prior Civil Rights Acts and I still don’t believe it was effective, especially not for black women, because when put in action it has failed time and time again.
In order to truly address this problem we must acknowledge that this is only a symptom of America’s degradation of black and brown people. Ultimately, we have to dismantle the systems that marginalize black and brown folk, as this country has been built on their backs. Since the beginning of time, white people have treated anyone who wasn’t white as second-class citizens, if not full-blown animals. These rulings reek of white entitlement and their constant need to be the gatekeepers of everything, at all times. In the eyes of the law, this ruling is completely unsubstantiated. We need less white, racist, “trying to maintain status quo” types of judges who only seek to make the law fit their narratives. I believe that most problems in a capitalist society can be fixed or at least drastically reduced with heavy fines. We need to stop sending the message that this is OK.
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