photo by: Eric Ayres
WHEELING – Human rights officials attended Tuesday night’s meeting of Wheeling City Council to speak in support of new legislation that would effectively bring CROWN Act language into the city code and to applaud city leaders for bringing the issue to the floor.
A first reading of an ordinance was held Tuesday regarding the matter, which has been a priority of the Wheeling Human Rights Commission for more than a year. Wheeling HRC officials have urged city council to adopt the CROWN Act, an effort that focuses on protecting individuals from discrimination based on culturally embraced or race-specific hairstyles, hair textures or headwear, particularly those common in the Black community.
An acronym standing for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” the CROWN Act is a measure seeking to implement legislation to deem it illegal to discriminate against a person – in the workplace, at school or any other setting – because of their hair.
Mayor Glenn Elliott kicked off Tuesday night’s council meeting by asking two men – both members of the local clergy and both human rights officials – to come forward to provide insight on the topic, which has raised a number of questions over the past year.
Elliott invited Rabbi Joshua Lief of Temple Shalom, vice chairman of the Wheeling Human Rights Commission, and Suff. Bishop Darrell Cummings, pastor of Bethlehem Apostolic Temple and chairman of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, to share their thoughts on the matter during his mayor’s report Tuesday night.
“When this issue first came up, I also shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘So what? What’s the big deal?’ And I did not understand the question,” Lief said, noting that since then, he’s gotten much more information about the issue to get a clearer picture. “Just because it didn’t happen to you doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.”
Lief noted that this type of discrimination is happening in the community regardless of whether or not individuals have had the courage to come forward to shed light on it. He also cited the fact that currently, the city code does not have these specific protections in place, which on its face explains why cases have not come forward.
“Because this wasn’t covered under discrimination statutes beforehand, who would have filed anything to complain about it since it wasn’t protected?” Lief asked. “And far more relevant … it takes a lot to complain of discrimination. To challenge authority – especially for a school child or an employee against their employer – it’s very risky. It begs more attention, more singling out and more reminders that you’re the minority.”
The language is “protective of the hair,” Lief said about the specific language in the CROWN Act. The rabbi said this is a very real issue that people who are affected by it are afraid to complain about. These are precisely the people who ought to be protected by the rest of the community – watching out for the wellbeing of neighbors, particularly those who are vulnerable because they are in the minority, Lief said.
“The absence of evidence so far of people complaining of discrimination is definitely not in this case the evidence of the absence of the pain and suffering of some of our neighbors,” Lief said, urging on behalf of the Human Rights Commission to support the new legislation.
“I thank you for being the first person so far on this topic to come forward and offer a logical explanation as well as a real perspective,” Wheeling City Councilman Ben Seidler said. “I appreciate it. It helps a lot. I wish we could have had this kind of explanation sooner.”
Cummings said this issue has come to the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, which took action to support the CROWN Act.
“This did come before us, and we did pass it unanimously,” Cummings said. “This is a preventative problem. In passing the CROWN Act, we want to make sure that everyone is treated well. If we really want to be a diverse community and we want to make everyone feel welcome, then this is something that we must do.”
When considering school or workplace rules regarding hairstyles or headwear, one must consider whether or not it may be culturally significant to someone, Cummings indicated. Making a student cut their braids or dreadlocks – in order to conform to a school rule that does not consider this – should not be acceptable, he noted.
“I hope that you will show that by your vote of the CROWN Act,” Cummings told council members.
The legislation received a first reading Tuesday night and is expected to receive a second reading and a vote by city council during its next meeting on Feb. 7.
Although the issue has been embraced by states and in local communities nationwide in recent years, not everyone has agreed with supporting the CROWN Act. Efforts have been put forth multiple times to bring the issue before the state legislature in West Virginia, but the matter has never garnered enough support to make it to the floor of the Capitol in Charleston.
Opponents have asserted that discrimination laws already cover these issues, painting the CROWN Act as a divisive political football that brings race into focus on matters where rules that should be uniform for everyone – such as workplace or school grooming or safety policies – are being segregated.
During public forum toward the end of Tuesday night’s meeting, Wheeling resident Julia Chaplin – who has been outspoken on a variety of city topics in recent years – described the measure as destructive.
“I feel that this amendment will limit employers and organizations from imposing serious safety rules and regulations,” Chaplin said. “Hair is not something that needs to be regulated. We have laws against discrimination – let the courts decide.”
Chaplin said if there are people in the community who are being discriminated against because of their hair, they need to come forward and be heard. But she said there have been no documented cases.
“For us to impose rules and regulations on some anonymous situation that happened in another city or another school – I think it is absolutely absurd,” Chaplin said. “I think you’re blaming everybody for what a few people might have done in some other place.”
Typically city leaders do not respond to individuals who wish to be heard at the end of council meetings; they almost always allow them three minutes to make a statement and be heard on the record, then the meeting is adjourned. However, Seidler requested to respond to Chaplin’s comments Tuesday night.
“This topic is frustrating to me,” he said, noting that city leaders don’t always have all of the information or context on every issue that comes before them. “A few weeks ago, I had a lot of questions, because the original version of this CROWN Act was very confusing. The context around why this was brought to us was very suspect. It seemed to me like it was a political stunt.”
However, Seidler said he and other council members have since reached out to meet with individuals in the community – particularly the Black community – and have direct conversations about these topics.
“I’ve heard from real people in this community about events that happen in this community,” Seidler said, stating that he heard from a local girl had to have objects cut out of her hair before she was permitted to play in a basketball game. “That wasn’t across the country, that was right here.”
Seidler said he was against issues that come to the forefront for political reasons or to grab headlines.
“This isn’t one of them,” Seidler said. “If you have a question about it, don’t come up here and give us a hard time about it. Go talk to members of the community who are fed up about these issues, and have that conversation with them. Let them tell you their own, real-world experience about what happens here.”