First-Ever National Study on African Hairbraiders Finds Tangle of Cosmetology Laws
By Valerie Bayham
For more than a decade, African hairbraiders have been handcuffed, arrested, thrown in jail or fined thousands of dollars merely for practicing their cultural art form for compensation. But thanks to the advocacy of the Institute for Justice and its clients, a growing number of states are finally setting braiders free. In December, the Institute for Justice released the first-ever nationwide study (“A Dream Deferred: Legal Barriers to African Hairbraiding Nationwide”) outlining how far we’ve come on the regulation of braiding and documenting the work still ahead.
Almost 15 years ago, D.C. hairbraider Taalib-Din Uqdah walked through IJ’s doors. Uqdah had a classic economic liberty problem: the Washington, D.C. Board of Cosmetology was trying to shut down his successful braiding establishment because he refused to send his braiders to 1,500 hours of cosmetology school so they could learn absolutely nothing about African hairbraiding. IJ took this simple case of irrational laws and scored an important victory not only for Uqdah, but for small business owners nationwide who face oppressive government regulation.
The Institute followed up the D.C. litigation with a federal court victory on behalf of braiders in California, legislative triumphs in Arizona and Mississippi, and administrative successes in Minnesota and Washington—all getting the government out of the way of these would-be entrepreneurs. Along the way, IJ earned a national reputation on the issue that continues to prompt calls from braiders across the country asking about the laws in their state. In response, IJ created “A Dream Deferred,” summarizing the state of cosmetology laws and their relationship to hairbraiding.
IJ’s litigation continues to spark an emancipation movement that is gaining speed. Today, 10 states have untangled braiders from cosmetology regimes. When states eliminate entry-level barriers, the natural hair care business booms. For example, Mississippi legislators exempted braiders from the state’s cosmetology laws only this past April, and IJ client Melony Armstrong, owner of Naturally Speaking in Tupelo, Miss., has already hired three new braiders and is thinking about expanding her braiding salon and academy.
Unfortunately, however, far too many braiders remain twisting in red tape. In nine states, braiders must satisfy onerous cosmetology laws to practice their craft, often including thousands of hours of pointless training. In 22 other states, boards of cosmetology can arbitrarily determine whether to prosecute braiders or leave them in peace. The final nine states developed hairbraiding specialty licenses that—while imposing fewer hours of training to receive a license—still create a significant and unnecessary barrier to pursuing this honest enterprise.
“A Dream Deferred” encourages states to change their laws or, for those that have informally adopted a hands-off policy, to formalize their position. It also gives braiders ammunition to bring this issue to the attention of legislators and make their case to the public.
African hairbraiders are ready and willing to share their passion for natural hair care with the nation—if only the bureaucrats would get out of their hair.Valerie Bayham is an IJ staff attorney.