If you can’t draw a direct line between a bill to protect people — mostly women, mostly women of color — from discrimination based on their natural hair and the television series “Duck Dynasty,” then you haven’t been around the Minnesota state Senate.
The bill is known nationally as the “CROWN Act,” which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. House File 37 signed by Gov. Tim Walz last week added one sentence to the Minnesota Human Rights Act that protects against discrimination in employment, housing and education. In addition to current protections against bias based on race, national origin, age, marital status, disability and religion, it adds that the definition of race “is inclusive of traits associated with race, including but not limited to hair texture and hair styles such as braids, locs, and twists.”
Sponsored by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion and Rep. Esther Agbaje, both DFLers from Minneapolis, the bill comes in response to complaints that people with hair and hairstyles associated with people of color face discrimination. During the Senate floor debate last month, co-sponsor Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, described her first job performance review included only one critique, that her curly hair was unprofessional and that she should do something about it.
It wasn’t especially controversial, passing the House 111-19 and the Senate 45-19. But the Senate vote came after an attempt was made to include the word “beards.”
“In the three weeks that I have been here I’ve gotten emails, I’m guessing from the opposite party, saying I look ugly and I should shave my face. That I should go back to Hicksville,” said first-term Sen. Nathan Wesenberg. The Little Falls Republican sports a long beard.
“I have a beard. It’s my natural hair,” Wesenberg said. “We should let people of all colors and all races know that we shouldn’t be racist against hair.”
Champion opposed the amendment, saying he wanted to keep the bill simple and narrow. He hadn’t heard from people who were discriminated against due to their beards.
“Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from a workplace because of their hair,” Champion said. “I don’t think as many women would be wrestling with the issue of a beard.”
But doesn’t the bill apply to all genders? Sen. Howe asked.
Yes, it does, Champion said.
“And by the way, I do like Sen. Wesenberg’s beard,” Champion said. “It is just that beards are not the issue before the body.”
That amendment failed on a nearly party line vote — though Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson voted with the DFL. But that wasn’t the end of the beard debate, partly because Champion tried to clarify his position.
“Beards are not attached to culture,” he said. “I love a beard. I can’t grow a beard but I certainly appreciate those who have the ability to grow a beard. Now when I say a beard is not a part of culture, that is not stated with any disrespect. I’m trying to be as narrow as possible based on what has been seen.”
That led Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, to ask if Champion would yield to a question.
“Senator Champion, have you ever seen the movie, er the TV series ‘Duck Dynasty?’” Drazkowski asked.
Responded Champion: “Senator Drawkowski, I have seen ‘Duck Dynasty’ as well as listened to the music of ZZ Top as well.” (For those who haven’t watched or haven’t listened, both the stars of the reality program and the members of the rock band favor long beards, not unlike that worn by Wesenberg.)
Drazkowski said he was encouraged by that response, to a point.
“‘Duck Dynasty’ represents people of a certain culture. It appears the author doesn’t consider that to be a culture, or at least doesn’t think this bill should apply to this culture. I would hope as we bring policy through the Minnesota Legislature, that it affects all cultures, not just particular ones, but all cultures.”
It went on. Sen. Eric Lucero, R-St. Michael, said many Jews and Muslims grow beards for religious reasons.
“I was struck by the, and I don’t mean this derogatorily, but the ignorance,” Lucero said. “Because there are many cultures where beards are clearly part and integral.”
Drazkowski then asked Champion if he knew who the Amish are? He said he did.
Finally, Champion said that he would be open to someone coming back with another bill to address discrimination against people with certain styles of beards. But he said wanted his bill to move forward without amendment. It did, and was sent to Walz with all DFL members in favor and 11 Republicans voting yes.