Noma Bar for Reader's Digest
In May 2010, Chastity Jones saw an ad for a customer service job at a call center in Mobile, Alabama. Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS), which handles customer calls for insurance companies, needed people with professional phone skills. Jones filled out an online application and was asked to come to the office for an in-person interview.
A few days later, she arrived at CMS in a blue business suit and waited with other applicants for a group interview. Jones was among several candidates offered a position that very day by CMS human resources manager Jeannie Wilson. All that remained was for Jones to fill out some paperwork and take a drug test, which was scheduled for a future date. When Jones realized she wasn’t available that day, she privately told Wilson about the conflict, and Wilson replied that Jones could reschedule her test for another day.
But right before Jones turned to leave CMS’s offices, Wilson posed a strange question: Did Jones have dreadlocks? Jones, who is black, was wearing dreads—very short ones. Wilson, who is white, explained that CMS couldn’t hire Jones “with the dreadlocks,” since they “tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” Although Jones would never interact face-to-face with callers, CMS had a “grooming policy,” which stated that “hairstyles should reflect a business/professional image” and that “excessive hairstyles and unusual colors” weren’t allowed. Wilson gave Jones an ultimatum: Get rid of the dreads or forfeit the job. Jones walked out of CMS jobless.
In September 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued CMS on behalf of Jones in the District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. It argued that the company’s grooming policy broke federal law by discriminating against a black job applicant because of her hairstyle, which is “a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.”
But CMS claimed that the issue wasn’t Jones’s race. It was simply about a hairstyle, which Jones—or any applicant, black or white, with dreads—could have changed if she wanted to land the job.
Was Jones, who lost out on a job because of her dreadlocks, a victim of racial discrimination?
The courts said she was not. In fact, the district court simply dismissed the case, which was then appealed by the EEOC. Judge Adalberto Jordan of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the dismissal. Jordan agreed that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against employees because of their race. But race, he said in his September 2016 ruling, applies only to physical traits that can’t be changed. In other words, Title VII would have protected Jones had CMS refused to hire her because of the texture of her hair, which she obviously couldn’t change. But refusing to hire her “on the basis of black hairstyle,” as Jordan wrote, is fair game.