CROWN Act’s failure in West Virginia comes after years of Black hair advocacy

Republican lawmakers in West Virginia have killed a bill that would have banned discrimination against Black hairstyles, known as the CROWN Act, in a blow for Black hair advocates in the state.

On Feb. 28, lawmakers decided on the swath of bills to be considered for the remainder of the legislative session. The CROWN Act wasn’t one of them.

Sen. Eric Tarr, a Republican, pulled the bill on Feb. 23 and sent it to the Senate Finance Committee, which he chairs. There, he let the bill stall, holding that hair discrimination lawsuits would cost the state too much money, according to the Mountain State Spotlight and a spokesperson for the Legislature.

“It was definitely a slap in the face. I was extremely disappointed because I felt that this year was the year that it would see its way through” the Legislature, said Veronica Bunch, 44, who has advocated for the CROWN Act in West Virginia in recent years. “The leadership we have, and the state itself, I just feel like we’re so regressed in our opinions and our views. In regards to African Americans, we tend to get pushed aside.”

The state’s most recent version of the bill, SB 496, would have barred discrimination based on “hair textures and protective styles historically associated with a particular race.” Democratic Sen. Mike Caputo introduced it.

Advocates have pushed lawmakers to pass such a bill for years, especially after families began to speak out publicly about hair discrimination. In 2019, a Beckley, West Virginia, high school basketball coach reportedly benched a Black teen over the length of his dreadlocks. The teen’s mother, Tarsha Bolt, has since spoken out about the situation while advocating for the CROWN Act.

Two years ago, Bunch said, a cheerleading coach demanded her daughter change her hair, which she wore in dreadlocks at the time. Bunch attempted to work with the coach to remedy the situation, but the school held there was no discrimination law that prohibited the coach’s actions, Bunch said. Last month, Bunch spoke about this experience in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which advanced the bill.

Just a week later, the legislation died after being removed from the Senate floor.

“The initial reaction during my testimony was extreme excitement because I felt as if a weight had been lifted off our shoulders,” Bunch said of herself and other advocates. She said she felt that the officials listening to her had empathy about what she and other Black families had endured.

Then “they pushed it back to the Senate Finance Committee,” Bunch said. “I was extremely disappointed.”

Sen. Mike Caputo, who introduced the most recent version of the bill in January, called Tarr’s decision to pull the bill and send it to the Senate Finance Committee the “kiss of death.”

“We hear horror stories all the time about how, particularly women of color, are treated differently because of their hairstyle, their natural hairstyle, or their traditional hairstyles,” Caputo said. “We need to move forward in America, not backward. It’s a shame we still are having discussions like that. I’m ashamed that in West Virginia we can’t at least do that much.”

Caputo, who is retiring after this session, said the bill wouldn’t have a large fiscal impact and he hopes another lawmaker sponsors the bill after he is gone.

In response to Tarr’s complaints about the possible costs, the Human Rights Commission added a fiscal note to the bill saying it anticipates “no fiscal impact from the proposed legislation.”

Both the Board of Risk and Insurance Management and the attorney general added fiscal notes saying the bill would likely lead to some costs, but according to the attorney general’s note, “it is unclear whether any litigation will actually arise from this bill and, more particularly, whether the Attorney General’s office will bear measurable increases as a result.”

Tarr did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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