Hair Police State


The evidence: styling gel, a pair of scissors, a page torn from an appointment book, and a single hair clip. On July 1, three undercover investigators from California’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), posing as state police officers, staged a “sting” operation at a popular braiding salon in West Los Angeles, Braids by Sabrina. Investigator Ayn Lauderdale spent five hours having her hair braided by shop owner Sabrina Reece, then slipped into the bathroom and reappeared in a police jacket. Joined by two more investigators, the three carried guns, says Reece, and rifled through the shop without a warrant, threatening to arrest her. After taking photographs and the social security numbers of everyone present, the investigators left with the so-called evidence sealed in a plastic baggie. A DCA supervisor confirmed the raid had taken place, but refused further comment. The alleged crime: not running drugs or carrying a concealed weapon, but braiding hair. Welcome to the hair police state.

What Sabrina Reece is being charged with, to be exact, is braiding hair without a cosmetology license, in violation of a law whose constitutionality is now being challenged in a federal class action lawsuit, as are similar laws around the country, including New York. The issue on the table is whether hair braiders’ 14th amendment rights—in this case, the ability to pursue a livelihood—are being violated by arbitrary and excessive licensing requirements.

Reece and other African-style braiders refuse to be licensed, and say that their profession, which they’ve practiced for years without state intervention, does not fall under the rubric of traditional cosmetology. (They don’t use chemicals, special equipment, or cut hair.) State cosmetology boards, on the other hand, claim jurisdiction over anyone who touches hair.

Braiders in the Los Angeles area have been fined and threatened for several years now, but Sabrina Reece is the first to be subjected to a raid. This isn’t Reece’s first run-in with the board. The 32-year-old mother of two was fined for the same charge last October. That the sting was authorized while the lawsuit filed on behalf of California braiders is still pending was a heavy-handed show of authority, rather than a case of pressing public concern. Insiders consider the incident a testament to the board’s power and the overall clout of the billion-dollar-plus cosmetology industry.

Recent legal victories favoring braiders have led state boards to step up enforcement of licensing laws and engage in what braiders characterize as undue harassment. In the past year, the various investigative arms of the boards—called the “cosmetology police” by attorney Dana Berliner of the Washington, D.C.­based Institute for Justice, which is representing braiders in several of the civil rights cases—have moved from issuing fines to more hardball tactics, like the sting at Braids by Sabrina.

In states such as Texas, California, Ohio, and South Carolina, investigators, often accompanied by police, have threatened to lock up braiders, put them out of business, and penalize their landlords. Some incidents have taken on the timbre of Black Panther­era raids, as in Dallas last October, where seven cops were sent to arrest one braider, who was led away in handcuffs. The majority of those being charged and threatened so far are African American women—some of whom started braiding to make the transition from welfare to work.

Tales of extremism keep piling up: Take Roxsanna Robins. In South Carolina, Robins, owner of For Girls Only Braiding Salon in Columbia, feels she’s being made a scapegoat. Robins’s shop is the only all-braiding salon in the capital city. The state board issued her a cease and desist order but hasn’t gone any further—officially, that is. Robins believes the board is reluctant to bar her from braiding hair. But, she says, that’s not stopping them from harassing her. David Bagwell, chairman of the South Carolina State Board of Cosmetology, would not comment directly on the case but said the board is obligated to enforce the law.

The salon has been open for only two months, but investigators have cased the place at least seven times. When Robins and her staff leave for the evening, there is often police presence outside of the shop, and her customers have been stopped and questioned. (The county sheriff’s office told Robins this was due to a rash of burglaries, but so far, none have taken place in the office park where the salon is located.) Robins’s landlord has said he would not renew her lease and says he plans to break it if he can find a way. (The landlord confirmed this, but said it was because Robins has “unsupervised” children in her shop, not because of the nature of her business.)

At the center of the licensing debate are questions of economic opportunity for African Americans, particularly women, and control over what many consider to be a cultural art form. The cosmetology lobby insists that health and safety interests demand braiders be regulated. Braiders say the industry’s position has little to do with health and safety and everything to do with economics—wanting to control a cottage industry that is now a multimillion-dollar enterprise. In fact, only a small percentage of cosmetology training is devoted to health and safety. California, for instance, requires only 4 percent.

To their supporters, the burdensome licensing requirements placed on the braiders are entry-level barriers to entrepreneurship. (In New York State, to be licensed as a hair braider requires 900 hours of training, compared to 116 for an EMS technician. New York created a separate license for natural hairstyling in 1992. But so far no cosmetology school in the state offers a course of study to complete such a license.) California’s cosmetology code, similar to those in 48 other states, mandates that braiders like Sabrina Reece attend cosmetology school—at fees of up to $1200 for a nine-month to two-year program—during which time they would learn nothing about their chosen profession. Cosmetology schools don’t teach African-style hair braiding—or any method of treating black hair in its natural state—nor do they test it on licensing exams. Most braiders learn from relatives or friends.

So why is the cosmetology industry trying to regulate a field that it can’t even train people for? “It’s an issue of money, race, control, politics, and power” is the mantra of Taalib-Din Abdul Uqdah, founder and executive director of the American Hairbraiders and Natural Haircare Association, which has been instrumental in changing licensing regulations in the District of Columbia and several states, including Michigan and Maryland.

The “braiding wars” are far from over, and braiders and their advocates predict there are ugly battles to come. “Traditional cosmetologists are feeling the financial pinch of a rising and popular hairstyle,” explains Uqdah. “In the effort to recover lost income, they are pressuring states to act as police agents for their cartels by conducting raids like the one in Los Angeles.” Says Reece, “They had to pass a mountain of drug activity at the corner of West Adams to get to me. Is this what my tax dollars are paying for?”

Research: Vicki Shiah