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Federal court bats down equal opportunity lawsuit involving dreadlocks

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 against an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit

Ilana Novick
September 29, 2016 12:57PM (UTC)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


In a blow to equal rights in workplaces everywhere in America, a federal appeals court ruled September 15 that rescinding a job offer based on a candidate's refusal to remove her dreadlocks does not constitute racial discrimination on the part of an employer. 


The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 against an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit brought on behalf of Chastity Jones. In 2010, Jones was preparing to start a position at Catastrophe Management Systems, an insurance claims processing company, when the human resources department explained the offer came with some specific strings attached. Apparently, Jones could only work at CMS if she agreed to remove her dreadlocks, which a white HR manager claimed violated the company's grooming policy because they “tend to get messy.” Jones refused, and the offer was rescinded. She then complained to the EEOC, which filed the suit in 2010. 

The suit argues that withdrawing the job offer constitutes racial discrimination because "dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent," therefore the company's demands were not simply a matter of hairstyle restriction, but of racial discrimination. The EEOC called race "a social construct" with "no biological definition." They also argued: "If a white person chose to wear dreadlocks as a sign of racial support for her black colleagues, and the employer applied its dreadlocks ban to that person, she too could assert a race-based disparate treatment claim.”

As the Wall Street Journal reported, Catastrophe Management Systems' lawyers accused the EEOC of "indulging in 'novel theories' about race and culture that sounded like a sociological thesis on critical theory, not a valid legal argument." 

The court, unfortunately, agreed. Federal law may prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, under Title VII, but courts continue to perform legal gymnastics trying to determine what consitutes said discrimination. A 2014 ruling, which this case upheld, stated that racial discrimination had to be based on "immutable" characteristics—that is, something that can't change, like skin color. The court decided that hairstyles were in fact mutable and that because Jones could physically change her hairstyle, it was legal for CMS to rescind her contract.

Judge Adalberto Jordan admitted that the differences between mutable and immutable are "fine and divisive" and that "there have been some calls for courts to interpret Title VII more expansively by eliminating the biological conception of ‘race’ and encompassing cultural characteristics associated with race.”

Apparently, however, he could not bring himself to heed this call, and ruled in favor of the company. The EEOC told the Wall Street Journal it is exploring further options. 


There was no word on whether any white job applicants were ever rejected by CMS for their "messy" hair.

Ilana Novick

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