West Virginia Legislature

Senate Judiciary approves Crown Act, prohibiting race-based hairstyle discrimination, in close vote

MORGANTOWN – Bills to prevent racially based discrimination based on hairstyles have sat idle for years in both houses of the state Legislature.

But SB 495, the Crown Act, made a step forward late Thursday afternoon, advancing out of Senate Judiciary after more than an hour of debate, in a close 10-7 vote.

The bill aims to prohibit discrimination based on race that includes discrimination based on hair textures and protective hairstyles historically associated with a particular race, where the term protective hairstyles includes braids, locks and twists.

It was apparent the road would be hard as soon as the bill was brought before the panel and Sen. Patrick Martin, R-Lewis, moved to table it. That failed.

Committee counsel told the members that 23 or 24 other states already have similar bills. And discussion also revealed that the U.S. Supreme Court banned discrimination based on hair back in the 1980s. West Virginia’s Human Rights Act prohibits racial discrimination, but this bill clarifies that hairstyles are part of that.

Miss Black West Virginia Veronica Clay-Bunch, invited to speak at the request of lead sponsor Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said her daughter suffered hair-based racial discrimination on her cheer squad, where she was required to undo her locks and adopt the cheer ponytail.

Her daughter didn’t have enough hair to do a ponytail, she said. That made her daughter feel defeated. “It was a lot for her emotionally. … There was nothing to protect her in regard to her hair.”

Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, recalled that the bill originated years ago because a male wrestler was required to cut his hair. For the wrestler, Azinger said, guided by his Black coach who required it, the haircut was a learning opportunity on how to be a teammate.

He told Clay-Bunch, “Maybe your daughter is not learning that lesson also because of your actions.” He also suggested maybe Clay-Bunch was fostering a victim mentality in her daughter.

He asked, “You’re saying it’s unequivocally about race?” She said, “100%.”

Nicole Cofer, who works for the state Supreme Court but spoke on her own behalf, said her two daughters have distinct hair – one a blonde, curly afro and the other curls that grow straight down. There’s no way they could be required to have their hair conform to certain textures or styles, and she fully supports the bill.

“This is a great way to include all of us in that conversation.”

Senators spoke for and against it. Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, said, “I’ve spent my whole life fighting racism.” But hairstyles are fleeting, they come and go, and it would be impossible to properly enshrine that in state code meant to last years and decades.

Sen. Mike Stuart, R-Kanawha, reminded his colleagues he was a U.S. attorney, and his office had an active civil rights division. But protecting hair could lead to protecting tattoos and other things.

“I think it’s a dangerous progression to go down,” he said.

Caputo recalled the 2019 situation where a Woodrow Wilson High School basketball player was benched for dreadlocks. “Where does this end?” he asked. “We should send a message West Virginians don’t accept that kind of behavior and you’re welcome here.”

Committee chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, called the bill an important one. It is not a valid argument to reject it because protective hair discrimination is already illegal. States duplicate federal civils rights laws all the time.

“This bill is about taking away the refuge of pretext,” he said – the pretext that someone is dealing with hair and not discriminating based race. “Surely we can rise above that and pass this bill.”

Along with Azinger, Stuart, Swope and Martin, Sens. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, and Jay Taylor, R-Taylor voted no.

Voting for it were Trump, Caputo, co-sponsor Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, Jason Barrett, R-Berkeley, Vince Deeds, R-Greenbrier, Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, Mark Hunt, R-Kanawha, David Stover, R-Wyoming, and Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha.

Email: dbeard@domininonpost.com