CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Senate passed a bill prohibiting racial discrimination based on certain hair textures and hairstyles.
Senate Bill SB850 passed 32-2 with only senators Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, and Mike Azinger, R-Wood, voting against it.
The bill now goes to the House of Delegates, where Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, has been a vocal supporter but where the legislation didn’t gain traction.
The Senate took up the bill earlier this week and quickly passed it through. Wednesday was “Crossover Day,” the last day on the legislative calendar to pass bills originating in one house to the other.
The bill was inspired by a young athlete from Beckley who was barred from basketball participation because of his dreadlocks.
The basketball team has a contract that their players sign before joining the team, but all it says on hair is that players must keep their hair “neat.”
“It was just not right. Why was he targeted?” asked his mother, Tarsha Bolt, during a Senate Judiciary meeting earlier this week.
“Why were his dreadlocks targeted? He’s a good kid. He has good grades. He has the skills to make the team. Why should his hair have him benched? And why should he be bullied to strip himself of his identity?”
During debate on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump said the bill is intended to clarify an aspect of West Virginia’s human rights act prohibiting discrimination based on race.
“Discriminating against people because of their race is unlawful in West Virginia now,” said Trump, R-Morgan.
“This bill just makes it clear that it’s not OK to say ‘I’m not discriminating based on your race, but it’s OK to discriminate because you have the hair or hairstyle of a particular race.'”
Tarr, R-Putnam, said he worried the bill would open up new avenues of litigation. He is the owner of multiple businesses and suggested the bill would prompt insurers to pressure businesses to settle.
“I can tell you that every method under the sun is used to try to sue employers in the state of West Virginia,” Tarr said.
Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, stood and commented in support of the bill. He said he had doubts when it was first introduced.
“Any time there is racial discrimination that might occur in the workplace, this body needs to stand against it,” Woelfel said.
Senator Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, praised the bill. But he said a similar emphasis should have been placed on legislation that would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“We still stand here in this tate and allow people to be fired because of their sexual orientation, and I wish we would take similar lightning-like action to take a stand on that,” Palumbo said.
In the House of Delegates, Walker earlier this year pushed a bill that would have amended the Human Rights Commission statute to define “protective hairstyles” as including, but not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, Locs, and twists.
“Our children are told to be proud of who they are,” Delegate Walker stated. “But then some of our children are told that they can’t participate in activities that their classmates are because of the way they choose to style their hair.”