The 11th Circuit considered what is meant by “race” under Title VII. The case focused on a Black job applicant hired for a call center job, with no direct contact with the public, who was told she would have to cut off her dreadlocks to confirm the job offer. In support of its position, the employer cited a grooming rule that prohibited “excessive hairstyles or unusual colors.” When the job applicant refused to comply, the job offer was retracted. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) maintained that the ban against the job applicant’s distinctively ethnic hairstyle amounted to race discrimination.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case. It held that Title VII only “prohibits discrimination based upon immutable traits, and the proposed amended complaint does not assert that dreadlocks, though culturally associated with race, are an immutable characteristic of black persons.” The panel noted that Title VII does not define race, nor has the EEOC attempted to define it, through the issuance of a regulation. Concluding that the definition must therefore derive from a contemporaneous 1960’s meaning, the panel stated that “most dictionaries at that time tied ‘race’ to common physical characteristics or traits existing through ancestry, descent or heredity.” Therefore, in the analysis of the Eleventh Circuit, “(f)rom the sources we have been able to review, it appears more likely than not that ‘race’ [in Title VII], as a matter of language and usage, referred to common physical characteristics shared by a group of people and transmitted by their ancestors over time. Although the period dictionaries did not use the term ‘immutable’ to describe such common characteristics, it is not much of a linguistic stretch to think that such characteristics are a matter of birth, and not of culture.