California is the first state to ban discrimination against natural hair in workplaces and schools.
The CROWN Act, which was signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, updates anti-discrimination laws so that the term "race" includes "traits historically associated with race."
According to the bill text, workplace dress codes that prohibit natural hair have a disproportionate impact on African Americans. These policies are more likely to deter black applicants from jobs and punish black employees in the workforce, the bill adds.
Sen. Holly Mitchell, the author of the legislation, said the new law recognizes that African American natural hair is an immutable trait. Under this law, hairstyles such as locks, twists and braids are considered traits of a protected class.
"The bill is about choice. It's about you, as a black woman or man, being in power to choose whether you straighten your hair, or if you choose to wear it natural. My choice of how I wear my hair shouldn't impact my ability to get a job, keep a job, or be promoted," Mitchell said.
Newsom said it was the case of Andrew Johnson, the 16-year-old New Jersey wrestler, who was asked by a referee to either forfeit the match or cut his dreadlocks, that brought this issue to the attention of millions of Americans last year.
"His dignity is being exposed. It is a decision whether or not to lose an athletic competition or lose his identity," Newsom said. "It is worth rewatching that video because that is played out in workplaces; it is played out in schools every single day across America in ways subtle and in ways overt."
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Mitchell said when she first ran for office in 2010, she knew her locks would be perceived as a social and political statement. She said, now 10 years later, she is using her experience to push for the natural hair movement.
"It's creating the opportunity in California, what we hope will be nationwide, for people to show up at school ready to learn, for people to show up to work ready to give your top performance. It's reflecting who I am as a person, and not needing to alter that to meet someone else's comfort level or meet someone else's perception of what's professional in the workplace," Mitchell said.
The bill was signed at ex-California Gov. Earl Warren's desk. Warren is known for writing the majority opinion in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.
"A big part of this was educating folks," Newsom said. "You got to change the culture, not just laws."