Black Police Officer Fired for Growing a Beard, Alleges Racism

A UPenn police officer claims he had to maintain facial hair because of a medical condition that mostly affects black men. (Photo: Getty Images)

Wearing facial hair isn’t exactly a choice for Joseph Lewis, a former campus police officer at the University of Pennsylvania. He suffers from a skin condition that leads to ingrown hairs and facial bumps caused by shaving, so he maintains a quarter-inch beard for comfort. But Lewis claims that officials at the university were unsympathetic to his skin issue, and he alleges they fired him for the scruff, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian.

Now Lewis is now suing UPenn for racial discrimination, as the affliction — called pseudofolliculitis barbae — primarily affects black males, like himself. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD), about 60 percent of black men are plagued with it. “The problem results when highly curved hairs grow back into the skin, causing inflammation and a foreign body reaction,” claims AOCD, which adds that it’s not only an unsightly condition, but can lead to scarring — and many patients simply cannot avoid outbreaks, no matter what treatments they try.

Though the publication says that beards do violate policy for UPenn officers, Lewis already tried to plead his case with his superiors, and even offered a compromise before his dismissal. According to the Daily Pennsylvanian, last August, Lewis applied for a waiver that would permit him to keep the beard as long as he kept it trimmed to a quarter inch.

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It was then that his employers began pushing him around, according to the lawsuit, which claims Lewis was denied overtime requests and singled out among his colleagues. Lewis doesn’t feel that the timing of his unfair treatment was a coincidence. Though the Department of Public Safety for the university claims he was fired over “family leave and a failure to update his personal information,” according to the article, Lewis is positing that it all comes down to his refusal to arrive to work clean-shaven.

Lewis’s lawyer, Timothy Creech, points out that Lewis “had been [working for UPenn] for years, and then they piled onto him with all these things they came up with, one after the other.” But Lewis cites a merit condemnation that he received a year ago, as well as a sergeant’s threat that he “shave or go home,” as evidence that he was fired due to discrimination, according to local publication Billy Penn.

Lewis might have a case. Follicle-based discrimination has been making headlines lately, from people who’ve claimed to have been dismissed for having dreadlocks to Muslims losing their jobs over their own beards, which they wear for religious reasons. In some cases, employers have changed their stance on hair-based discrimination, but in most cases, victims are left with little recourse.

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According to Business Management Daily, employers can only require workers who suffer from medical conditions like pseudofolliculitis barbae to shave their beards if they “can show that it’s necessary to maintain workplace safety (such as needing to wear a respirator that fits snuggly around the employee’s mouth and nose),” which is clearly not the case for a campus police officer. The nonprofit Workplace Fairness confirms that “several individuals have successfully challenged companies that have required them to shave their beards” but doesn’t cite how many and under what circumstances they claimed victory.

A spokesperson for UPenn, vice president for university communications Stephen MacCarthy, told the Daily Pennsylvanian that the university “does not comment on pending litigation.” The amount of money Lewis is asking for in his lawsuit has not been disclosed.

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