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Maryland lawmakers hear testimony for bill to ban discrimination of black hairstyles

State Senator Will Smith Jr., from district 20, is a sponsor of the bill and testifies before the committee. The Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee held hearings on Senate Bill 531 Discrimination - Definition of Race - Hair Texture and Hairstyles, Tuesday afternoon in their committee chamber.
State Senator Will Smith Jr., from district 20, is a sponsor of the bill and testifies before the committee. The Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee held hearings on Senate Bill 531 Discrimination - Definition of Race - Hair Texture and Hairstyles, Tuesday afternoon in their committee chamber. (Paul W. Gillespie)

Tales of hair discrimination flooded the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Tuesday afternoon, as African American community leaders from across the state testified about the need for an expansion in Maryland’s definition of race to include hair texture and protective styles that are often associated with African American identity.

The movement to ban hair discrimination in Maryland is being led by Del. Stephanie Smith, D-Baltimore City, who proudly wears her hair in locks on the House floor, and Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery County, who said he realized the importance of a bill like this when his daughter was born, and he began to think of how she would navigate the world.

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It’s Maryland’s version of the Crown Act — now law in California, New York and New Jersey — which aims to create a respectful and safe environment for people to wear their natural hair without discrimination.

“It’s unjust for black people to be penalized for the natural texture of their hair, or for deciding to wear a protective hairstyle consistent with their cultural identity,” Smith said in defense of his bill. “The harm caused by race-based hair discrimination places undue burdens on an already vulnerable population.”

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The bill is supported by several Anne Arundel County lawmakers, including Dels. Shaneka Henson, D-Annapolis; Heather Bagnall, D-Arnold; Joseline Peña-Melnyk; and Sandy Bartlett, D-Maryland City.

Advocates of the bill say it will allow African American people to opportunities to achieve economic and social advancement that has historically been inaccessible.

No opponents gave oral testimony but Alan Drew of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorney Association did submit an unfavorable position on the bill. Drew did not submit written testimony in opposition, and could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

During the hearing, Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford County, inquired about the meaning of the protective hairstyles that are protected by the bill, and questioned what types of styles would be allowed if this bill passed.

The bill defines protective hairstyles as hairstyles designed to protect the ends of hair by decreasing tangling, shedding and breakage, including braids, twists and locks.

“If somebody wants to have 3-foot spikes that are gold at the end,” Cassilly said, “what are the standards here?”

He said he was unclear on exactly what this bill would protect.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, you don’t have that problem,” Smith said to Cassilly, who is bald, before explaining that the bill would only protect against afros or braids, twists and locks — hairstyles that are typically used to protect black hair from breakage.

Cassilly also questioned the bill’s supporters about whether the length of braids, twists or locks mattered in the bill.

Glendora Hughes, general counsel at the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, said that it was not possible to make a generalized statement on the length of the hairstyles, and that it would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

After testifying about her personal experience of her hair, Shamoyia Gardiner, education policy director at Advocates for Children and Youth, said that she thought the line of questioning from Cassilly was disingenuous.

In an interview with The Capital, Gardiner said she was not surprised that instead of focusing on how to protect black people from discrimination, Cassilly tried to focus the conversation on things like “abnormally long and nonnormative hairstyles, which I’m not sure is a priority of anyone in the legislature.”

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“Maybe there's someone for whom that was a very interesting policy issue,” Gardiner said. “But if we weren’t talking about black hair, we would not have heard anything about giant spiky braids.”

Cassilly said he understands the intent of the bill, but he doesn’t think it’s clear enough from an enforcement perspective.

“I don’t want people being fired because they wear their hair in cornrows or braids, I don’t want any of that,” Cassilly said in an interview with The Capital. “It’s just way too general.”

Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll County, inquired about protections for well-meaning people who unintentionally discriminate but then learn from their mistakes — whether well-meaning people who learn their lessons would be held accountable would be up to the courts.

“That perception, that black hair isn’t clean, is shared by a lot of well-meaning people,” said Montgomery County Councilman William Jawando, “and that’s because of 400-plus years of the dehumanization of black people that we won’t go into today.”

Jawando, who passed the first county-level version of this bill in the United States, spoke about his three young daughters as his inspiration.

When his youngest daughter was 5 years old, he said she asked him, “Dad, why isn’t my hair straight like the pretty girls on TV?”

It’s important, he said, to pass this bill and swing open the doors of opportunity for black people who have consistently been discriminated against based on their hair. But it’s equally important, he said, to make a statement of value and worth:

“We need to say with a strong voice to my daughter, and to women and men across the state that whoever you are, however you look, how you are naturally made, you are good enough.”

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