A high school wrestler from Buena Regional High School in Atlantic County had his locs cut on the mat before a wrestling match in December, rather than forfeit the match because of his hairstyle. The referee who gave him that ultimatum has been suspended for two years, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and the Division on Civil Rights announced Wednesday; and now, high school athletics officials and staff throughout New Jersey must go through implicit bias training.
The DCR also issued a guidance on race discrimination based on hairstyle Wednesday, explaining how treating people differently based on hairstyle may violate New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws. Racial discrimination includes discrimination based on a trait “inextricably intertwined with or closely associated with race” like hairstyle, the guidance states.
Policies that ban, limit, or restrict hairstyles associated with being black or having black ancestry may violate state law, according to the guidance.
“Student athletes should be able to compete with each other on a level playing field,” said Attorney General Grewal in a statement. “Racial discrimination in the enforcement of the rules of any sport is inconsistent with the spirit of fair play. The Division on Civil Rights’ action today makes it less likely that any student athlete will have to endure discrimination that not only undermines fair competition but also violates our state laws.”
As part of the resolution of its investigation of the case in Atlantic County, the DCR has entered into an agreement with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which administers athletics across its 437 member high schools. The NJSIAA will train all of its local rules interpreters and wrestling officials about the long history of discrimination based on hairstyle, and on the National Federation of State High School Associations Rule 4.2.1, which requires an athlete’s hair to be covered at a certain length but was interpreted by the referee in Dec. and others before as requiring coverage for several traditionally back hairstyles irrespective of length.
“Both DCR and the NJSIAA seek to ensure that wrestling officials, coaches and athletic personnel in New Jersey interpret Rule 4.2.1 in a way that does not discriminate against black wrestlers,” the Memorandum of Agreement announced Wednesday states. “In particular, they seek to eliminate any interpretation of Rule 4.2.1 that allowed wrestling officials to determine that traditionally black hairstyles were ‘unnatural’ or to subject wrestlers with traditionally black hairstyles to differential treatment as to when a haircover was required.”
The DCR guidance also clarifies that state law generally prohibits employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation from enforcing appearance policies that ban, limit, or restrict hairstyles closely associated with being black, such as twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, locs, Bantu knots, and fades.
“Discrimination against black people because of their hair, which is often based on stereotypes that traditionally black hairstyles are ’unprofessional‘ or ’unkempt,’ is a persistent form of anti-black racism,” said DCR Director Rachel Wainer Apter in a statement. “This guidance makes clear that employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation cannot police black hair. And the MOA will ensure that high school athletes across the state can focus on being their best, not worrying that their hair will subject them to differential treatment based on race. We are grateful to the NJSIAA for their hard work on this Agreement.”