By Senator Lena C. Taylor
There is an oft repeated quote in state houses around the country: We cannot legislate hearts, but we can legislate behavior. Lawmakers can’t force anyone to like someone, but we can enact laws and policies that require equitable and fair treatment for everyone.
There is also another adage that goes: Laws/Policies are only as good as the people who enforce them. Just ask Darryl George. As a high school student, George has spent more time in detention this school year than he has in regular classrooms. In fact, he’s spent more than 80% of his junior year in detention. What is his offense? His hair.
Darryl, a Black student, wears dreadlocks or locs the kids simply say. In his Texas high school, officials said his hair violated their dress code. According to a recent article in The Guardian, the dress code policy at Barbers Hill independent school district attracted headlines in 2020 when a Black student was forbidden to return to school or attend his graduation ceremony unless he cut his locs. Greg Poole, who has been district superintendent since 2006, has said the policy is legal and teaches students to conform as a sacrifice benefiting everyone.
Now, this seems like a perfect place to pause. Did Poole really say that this Black child should sacrifice his natural hair, cultural identity, and self-esteem, so that “everyone” (insert the word of your choice) could benefit? I know I shouldn’t be shocked. After all, Black people have often been forced, required, or asked to change their hair, appearance, manner of speaking, and even our history to make others feel more comfortable.
Understanding the discrimination often associated with Black hair, lawmakers around the country have worked to pass legislation to stop the unfair treatment. The CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” is a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots. Black state legislators have introduced the bill in Wisconsin.
In May 2023, Texas passed the Crown Act into law. It went into effect on September 1, 2023. Yet, Darryl has had neither the protections nor security that the bill was intended to provide. We’ve been here before. Black voting rights were undermined by poll taxes and literacy tests. Black veterans were unable to use VA loans. Integration still looks a lot like separate and unequal in education. Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were the de facto reinstatement of slavery. Attacks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are a way to reverse affirmative policies, intended to correct hundreds of years of unfair racially-biased college admissions practices.
Even when legislation is passed to address systemic racism, those intent on maintaining discrimination move the goal post. They look high and low for the loophole and intentionally misinterpret the law. Or if you are the Barber Hill School District, you ignore the law or adjust the rules. In the past, the U.S. Supreme Court has been able to offer balance in some challenges to discrimination. Today, the nation’s highest court often lead with partisan ideology and allows personal beliefs to guide their interpretations of the law. My point… legislation is only half the battle. We must have good people committed to upholding and enforcing the law.