The need for a more diverse and representative staff seems to punctuate every workforce development conversation at AEC firms. Whether the industry is ready and willing to have a serious conversation about the needs of those diverse workers is another matter entirely when considering the rhetoric that surrounds the CROWN Act.

First signed into California law in 2019, the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) has become a national movement to extend statutory discrimination laws to include Black protective hairstyles such as braids, dreadlocks, twists and bantu knots in public schools and the workplace—with 15 states and more than 40 municipalities enacting their own versions of the law. A version is currently waiting a vote in the U.S. Senate.

Emell Adolphus

Following accounts of students being suspended and workers losing out on promotions because of their dreadlocks, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey (D), sponsor of a federal version of the legislation, explained that natural Black hair is often seen as “unprofessional.” She said: “Discrimination against Black hair is discrimination against Black people.”

In March, as the bill passed by a 235-189 vote in the House to wait for Senate action, Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan seemed to embody the elephant in the legislative chamber—the inability of white people to see the importance of the issue. 

With “chaos all over the place,” Jordan questioned why “this is what they’re focused on.” He asked, “How about a world where inflation isn’t at a 40-year high?” CROWN Act opponents also argue that its protections already exist under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Further legislation is unnecessary, Jordan said. “I hope we can actually focus on the things that matter.”

The CROWN Act isn’t cultural splitting of hairs; it matters.

Dreadlocked, twisted and braided hairstyles help those with curly hair textures manage and protect their hair. For many Black construction workers, there also may be a productivity dividend—less time straightening, combing and cutting hair to mimic European hairstyles means more time focused on the demands of the job. 

Manageability steered Yvette Stevens’ decision to dreadlock her hair. As director of economic inclusion and community affairs at Gilbane Building Co., she remembers being “terrified” early on to come to work without straightened hair. “I remember calling my boss and saying, when I come to work tomorrow, I’ll look different and please don’t say anything.” 

Employers, of course, don’t need to wait for a federal law.

Demonstrating clear support for natural hairstyles is a small way for AEC firms to make a big impact in recruiting and retaining a more diverse workforce. Normalizing the styles and customs practiced by other ethnic groups also has the potential to break down systemic discrimination and harassment that occurs at jobsites.

During a May 17 hearing hosted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), entitled “Knocking Down Walls: Discrimination and Harassment in Construction,” craftworkers and union representatives gave firsthand, explicit testimony about violent threats, racial epithets and sexual harassment.

Enduring that treatment was the price for protecting construction livelihoods. Fear of retribution for reporting these incidents has in the past helped to limit opportunities for Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American and female workers.

With the $1.2-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act ramping up, such seemingly “inconsequential” types of cultural bias threaten to limit participation of minority businesses and individuals. The time for real action is now, ironworker Japlan “Jazz” Allen, treasurer for Chicago Women in Trades, said in the EEOC hearing. “No more referrals. Action.”

While high pay and low barriers to entry are often touted as a “no-brainer” for choosing a construction career over college, overt and implicit discrimination typified by hair restrictions continues to say, “You’re not welcome here.” 

If the construction industry really wants a more diverse workforce, it must explicitly welcome hairstyles central to Black identity.