Friday, September 16, 2016
Congratulations to friend of the blog, Wendy Greene (Samford) whose article, Title VII: What’s Hair (and Other Race-Based Characteristics) Got to Do With It? was cited today by the Eleventh Circuit in EEOC v.Catastrophe Management Solutions. Wendy's article was cited for its discussion of the socially constructed nature of race.
Wendy describes the case:
In this case, CMS, an insurance processing company in Mobile, Alabama, rescinded an African American woman’s job offer to handle phone calls related to customer service support because she refused to cut off her locked hairstyle. Essentially, the employer made "no locks" a condition of employment for the applicant, though she was deemed qualified, interviewed and was offered the job with the hairstyle. And, apparently CMS’ human resources manager considered her hair well-groomed at the time of hire, yet remarked that the applicant’s locks might eventually become “messy.” The HR manager told the applicant she would be unable to hire her if she did not cut off her hair; the applicant refused do so, returned her initial paperwork as requested, and left the premises. The Birmingham office of the EEOC filed a Title VII intentional race discrimination case against CMS. In doing so, the EEOC attempted to overturn over 30 years of legal precedent affirming the legality of natural hairstyle bans (except those involving afros). Largely drawing upon legal scholarship of U.S. employment discrimination and race and law scholars, one of the EEOC's primary arguments centered around the immutability doctrine; the EEOC advanced that a biological notion of race, which treats race as an “immutable” characteristic, should no longer be employed when interpreting Title VII’s prohibitions against race discrimination. Rather, the notion of race should be expanded to include both immutable and mutable characteristics. Thus, a grooming policy prohibiting natural hairstyles, like locks, braids, twists, etc., which are associated with African descendants—in law and society—constitutes unlawful race discrimination.
Ultimately, the 11th Circuit declined to abolish the immutability doctrine in EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions and held that CMS’ “no locks” mandate did not violate Title VII, as the EEOC would be unable to produce evidence that all individuals who adorn locks are Black or that only individuals who adorn locks are Black. Though the court did not rule in the EEOC’s favor, it did engage in a fairly lengthy dialogue about the meaning of race and competing arguments of notable race and law scholars. Aside from the exploration of race, this opinion may be of interest to proceduralists and those interested in the application of the Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. UPS, the (purported) demarcation between disparate treatment and disparate impact theories of liability, and statutory interpretation more generally.
The opinion relied very heavily on legal scholarship for its analysis. In addition to citing Wendy, the opinion cites Ian Haney Lopez, Camille Gear Rich, Sharona Hoffman, Barbara Flagg, Richard Ford, Annelise Riles, Kenji Yoshino, Juan Perea, and Rhonda Magee Andrews in its discussion of what race is. Ultimately the court relied on what it believed Congress thought race was in 1964--a set of immutable physical characteristics--and its prior precedent. But the court's analysis went a bit further, too, considering the legal scholarship. The opinion expressed some concern about including cultural or behavioral practices as part of the identity protected by Title VII because those practices might vary by individual and change over time. The court was very uncomfortable with the idea that courts would have to decide what was an "authentic" part of a racial group's culture and what was not. Despite the court's reluctance to agree with many of the scholars it cited, the fact that the opinion considers this work so carefully is heartening.