Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Chastity Jones is an African American woman who had her hiring by an Alabama insurance claims processing company rescinded because she insisted on wearing her hair in dreadlocks. She claimed racial discrimination, but both a federal court and a federal court of appeals ruled against her.

As the Slate story put it:

The company, Catastrophe Management Solutions, required its employees to project “a professional and businesslike image”; Jones claims a white human resources employee told her that she’d need to get rid of her dreadlocks because they “tend to get messy.” When Jones refused to modify her hairstyle, the company rescinded her offer of employment.

Without getting into the details of the case, the key distinction that the court made is between “immutable and mutable characteristics of race.” It concluded that, “…discrimination on the basis of black hair texture (an immutable characteristic) is prohibited by Title VII, while adverse action on the basis of black hairstyle (a mutable choice) is not.”

In other words, as I understand the court’s reasoning, asking the woman to straighten her hair would have been racial discrimination, because it involved telling her to change an immutable characteristic, but telling her not to wear dreadlocks was not racial discrimination because she could have chosen another hairstyle that doesn’t “tend to get messy”—e.g., a small Afro. (In a grey area [between black and white] if an employer were to reject, one after another, all hair styles that do not involve straightened hair, courts would have to decide whether the employer was really seeking to discriminate in a roundabout manner.)

The key distinction that the courts were dealing with is whether to define race as a biological category or a social category (albeit  a social category based on observable physical traits and/or ancestry). The courts appear to have opted for the biological definition.

***

In my book The Myth of Race, as well as in many pieces in this blog, Looking in the Cultural Mirror, I have attempted disentangle biology and culture from the confused mix called race.

In brief, the human species has no biological races. All that exists is gradual variation in what people look like (e.g., skin color and facial features) and in their genes, as you travel around the planet--with more distant populations appearing more different than closer ones. Since there are no biological races, it follows that races cannot have immutable characteristics (or any characteristics). In contrast, the social concept of race consists of a set of cultural categories for labeling people based on how their ancestors were classified, selected aspects of what they look like, or various combinations of both. These sets of racial categories vary widely from one culture to another.

Essentially, the courts’ decisions, reflecting American culture, treat people’s biological features like skin color and hair texture as the essence of their race, and view social concerns like the their racial identity as irrelevant. This seems odd, since the only way to determine people’s race is to ask them.

For example, some immigrants to the United States from Brazil (which has a very different concept of race from that in the United States) are frustrated and angered when they discover that Americans apply incorrect racial labels to them, perhaps calling them black when they know that they are not—especially since they do not consider themselves white either, and view being forced to choose between only two options as racist.

In other words, despite the courts’ biologized view, people’s immutable characteristics lead to quite mutable racial labels.

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Freedom of religion, guaranteed by the First Amendment, seems to hold a privileged position in American jurisprudence. Perhaps the courts would say that the First Amendment protects religious identity but not racial identity. This unequal protection may have arisen for historical reasons: guaranteeing freedom of religion as a way of avoiding Europe’s bloody religious conflicts. But it seems a misallocation of protection, since America’s history of conflict is much more about race than religion; and, for many people, their racial identity is much more important to them than their religious identity.

In any event, if Ms. Jones had been a Rastafarian, and had refused to remove her dreadlocks on religious grounds, perhaps the courts would have decided differently.

What do you think?

Check out my most recent book, The Myth of Race, which debunks common misconceptions, as well as my other books.

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About the Author

Jefferson M. Fish Ph.D.

Jefferson M. Fish, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of psychology at St. John's University. He has authored and edited 12 books, including The Myth of Race.

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