On July 12, 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill amending state law to ban race discrimination on the basis of hair or hairstyle and other traits historically associated with race. The ban is effective immediately, and makes New York the second state – after California – to enact such a prohibition.

Specifically, the newly-signed state legislation amends New York’s Executive and Education laws to include "traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles." Protective hairstyles include, but are not limited to, "such hairstyles as braids, locks and twists." 

Significantly, although hairstyle is the only trait expressly identified in the amendments, "traits historically associated with race" may include any number of characteristics. Of course, employers were already prohibited from engaging in race-based discrimination, so a practical impact of these amendments is to codify the connection between certain hairstyles and race.

NYC Commission on Human Rights guidance paves way for amending law

The amended state law follows on the heels of guidance promulgated earlier this year by the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which focused "on policies addressing natural hair or hairstyles most commonly associated with Black people, who are frequent targets of race discrimination based on hair." 

Technically, the City Commission’s guidance did not represent a change in the law, as race discrimination had previously been (and remains) unlawful. However, the guidance expressly states that employer policies and practices may not prohibit hairstyles historically associated with the Black community (such as “twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, fades and/or locs”) or, alternatively, an employee’s decision to maintain his or her hair in an “uncut or untrimmed state.”

Ensure that your organization has race-neutral grooming policies

If they have not already done so, employers should review their grooming policies to ensure that they are race-neutral – both in terms of content and application.