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No, If I don’t Like Your Dreads I Don’t Have to Hire You

It would be a hard sell to convince me that there is a more misapplied, misappropriated concept in American society these days than “discrimination.” In our self-indulgent, victim-obsessed culture the cries of unjust discrimination are everywhere. There’s plenty of blame to go around when trying to pinpoint who started, who facilitated, and who continues to foster this now frenzied phenomenon, but at least a significant portion of it rests with our inability to understand the inherent meaning of the word discrimination.

Being discriminating is hardly a vice. In fact, every law a civilized society writes discriminates against a particular behavior. Every civilized person will discriminate against individuals regularly when choosing who to associate with, who to fraternize with, who to consort with. Wise counsel tells young people to be discriminating in their choice of a spouse. Even the Bible directs to godly to discriminate righteously.

Rendering any societal judgment that all discrimination is immoral and wrong would therefore leave us ethically and intellectually stunted. Yet, with as terribly misguided as it may be, that seems the exact direction our pop-culture compass is being pointed these days. The Daily Wire reports:

A bill introduced in December in the House of Representatives and in January in the Senate by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against an employee on the basis of their hair…

Booker’s bill in the Senate, S. 3167, states in part, “ … people of African descent are deprived of educational and employment opportunities because they are adorned with natural or protective hairstyles in which hair is tightly coiled or tightly curled, or worn in locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, or Afros … some Federal courts have misinterpreted Federal civil rights law by narrowly interpreting the meaning of race or national origin, and thereby permitting, for example, employers to discriminate against people of African descent who wear natural or protective hairstyles even though the employment policies involved are not related to workers’ ability to perform their jobs.”

There are a host of problems with this kind of legislation, beginning with the fact that it is a tremendous infringement of the rights of employers to keep and maintain the kind of workplace appearance standards that they desire.

If the local mom and pop deli wants the long hair of their sandwich makers pulled up and covered, they should be able to demand it.  

If the owner of a department store wants only workers who are clean shaven, they should be able to demand it.

If the proprietor of a local landscaping business has a problem with tattoos and the impression he believes they give to people, he should be able to demand they be covered.

If the owners of the neighborhood supermarket don’t want their cashiers to have creepy long fingernails as they’re ringing up guests, they should be able to demand it.

In the same way, if an employer does not like the look or the perceived cleanliness of dreadlocks, she should be able to demand that those she employs not sport them.

And for those who would argue, “Tattoos, beards, and long hair aren’t culturally specific,” it should be noted neither are dreads and so-called “ethnic hairstyles.” In a research paper at Public Discourse a few years ago, Dr. Ryan T. Anderson articulated the important distinction between invidious and rightfully unlawful discrimination and discrimination that is both lawful and appropriate. He wrote,

[W]e can identify three different types of cases:

Cases of invidious discrimination, in which an irrelevant factor is taken into consideration in order to treat people poorly based on that factor, as with racially segregated water fountains;

Cases of distinctions without unlawful discrimination, in which a factor is taken into consideration precisely because it is relevant to the underlying policy and people are not treated poorly, as with sex­ specific intimate facilities; and

Cases with neither distinctions nor discrimination, in which a particular factor simply does not enter into consideration, as with pro­life doctors.

To an objective mind, discrimination involving hairstyle certainly seems to land in one of the latter two categories. Under any race-neutral grooming policy there are simply no constitutional grounds to forbid companies from maintaining their own appearance standards. Any definition of “discrimination” that would include such a prohibition is absurdly exaggerated and will result in the total loss of private sector autonomy.

I think it’s fair to question whether that is the more pressing concern of those pushing this legislation than any fears about theoretical racial mistreatment.

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