A Dream Deferred: Legal Barriers to Hairbraiding Nationwide are Leaving a Tangled Mess

      For more than a decade, African hairbraiders-who create attractive and artistic hairstyles without damaging chemicals-have been handcuffed, arrested, thrown in jail or fined thousands of dollars for practicing their cultural art form.  But thanks to the advocacy of the Institute for Justice and its clients, lawmakers and courts in a growing number of states are forcing overzealous bureaucrats to set braiders free.

     Today, the Institute for Justice issued a first-ever national study that documents how ten states have led the way through this tangled mess-exempting braiders from all cosmetology requirements and leaving them free to twist, lock, weave and extend hair without unnecessary and costly cosmetology licenses.  Not only do these states show no harm to consumers after opening up the market, but consumers are better served by a broader choice of braiders and once-beleaguered braiders can freely practice their craft and grow their businesses without worrying that the next knock on the door might be a government regulator looking to shut them down.
      As noted in “A Dream Deferred: Legal Barriers to African Hairbraiding Nationwide”, the freedom to braid has come in different forms:
–  Simple exemption statutes in Arizona, California, Connecticut and Maryland;
–   Optional licensing in Michigan;
–   Registration and/or posted brochures on common sense sanitation guidelines in Kansas and Mississippi;
–  Administrative exemptions in Minnesota, North Carolina and Washington.
     In each of these states, braiders remain subject to general business requirements and any applicable state health regulations.  But they no longer need to take courses on unrelated cosmetology techniques like permanent waves and chemical straighteners, which too often cost braiders thousands of wasted hours and dollars.  Instead, braiders are free to practice the skills many of them learned at their mothers’ knees.
    In its 15-page paper, the Institute for Justice summarizes the current state of cosmetology laws and their relationship to braiding.  In doing so, the Institute notes that although braiders are making headway through this maze of bureaucratic red tape, there is much work still to be done.     
     In 9 states, braiding is included in the definition of cosmetology, either by statute, regulation or court decision-meaning that braiders must submit themselves to the onerous cosmetology laws if they want to practice their craft.  In another 22 states, the laws are silent, allowing boards of cosmetology to determine whether to prosecute braiders or leave them in peace.  (Cosmetology boards, however, are often made up of the very individuals who want to use government power to limit their competition from braiders).  The white paper details the hundreds of hours of cosmetology training-up to 2,100-that braiders in many states may be required to complete before legally practicing their profession.
     “Perversely, state cosmetology licensure schemes allow cosmetologists to braid despite not having any experience, even as they forbid experienced braiders from practicing or teaching their craft,” noted Valerie Bayham, a staff attorney at the Institute for Justice and author of the report.  “These harebrained regulations have turned the opportunities that should be available for African hairbraiders into a tangled mess.”
      For many African-Americans and African immigrants, hairbraiding represents an important celebration of natural beauty, culture and freedom.  This age-old art involves the intricate twisting, weaving, extending, or locking of natural hair.  It is a natural alternative to the damaging chemicals that many African-Americans use to straighten their hair.  It is also a great start-up entrepreneurial option for those with limited resources:  almost no financial capital is needed to open a braiding business, and rather than requiring a great deal of formal education, the necessary skills are passed from one generation to the next.  Hairbraiding, like so many other occupations, provides outstanding opportunities for economic self-sufficiency so long as governments don’t impose arbitrary barriers to entry.
     But freedom for African hairbraiders doesn’t come cheap, and it is often delayed.  Licensure requirements in many states give mainstream cosmetologists a near monopoly on all forms of hairstyling.  A cosmetology license requires thousands of hours of classroom training at a cost of roughly $5,000 to $15,000.  Worse, the training is often completely unrelated to African hairbraiding.
      Fatou Magassouba, a braider in Bethlehem, Ga., knows this story far too well.  Magassouba, a legal alien from the Ivory Coast, has been earning a living braiding in the United States for nine years.  But recently, the Georgia Board of Cosmetology has stepped up its prosecution of braiders, issuing $1,000 fines for braiding without a cosmetology license.  “Braiding is my life, but I want to braid legally,” stated Magassouba.  She is faced with a stark choice-temporarily close her salon while spending her hard-earned money on 1,500 hours of cosmetology training or close her business for good.  “The only braiding the schools teach is French braiding-something we don’t even do.”
    Until Georgia changes its laws, Magassouba’s business will remain closed-her opportunity to better her future through honest enterprise denied.
    According to Talib-din Uqdah, founder of the American Hairbraiders and Natural Haircare Association and a leading national braiding activist, the state has no business in restricting entrance to the braiding profession.  Uqdah said, “Braiders lose valuable years engaging both legislative and bureaucratic bullies, asking for a right we already have.  You should never have to ask anyone for permission to do something already granted to you by Almighty God Himself.  AHNHA firmly believes that that the African cultural practice of hairbraiding does not require a cosmetology license of any kind.  Asking a state-licensing agency if you need a license to braid hair is like asking a barber or beautician if you need a trim or a cut; it’s in their nature to tell you that you do.”
     When states eliminate entry-level barriers to the natural hair care industry, business booms.  The Mississippi legislature granted braiders an exemption from the state’s cosmetology laws this spring, and Melony Armstrong, owner of Naturally Speaking in Tupelo, Miss., has already hired three new braiders.  She is also thinking about expanding her braiding salon and academy, which offers advanced courses for braiders who want to develop their skills.  She said, “I want to share my passion for braiding with others.  I don’t need a state license to tell me that I’m a professional.  My work speaks for itself.”
    Bayham explained, “Government regulations that do nothing more than protect established interests-in this case cosmetologists and cosmetology schools-from competition are cutting off the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.  These regulations prevent braiders from earning their share of the American Dream.”
      The opportunity to succeed based on her own talent is all that Memphis braider Debra Nutall has ever wanted.  This single mother of three braided her way off of welfare and has taught braiding in Tennessee for years.  State senators unanimously passed a braiding exemption last term, but the measure died in a house committee.  Nutall is now considering moving her braiding skills to Mississippi, where the climate is friendlier towards braiders.
      The Institute for Justice hopes its white paper on braiding regulations will be a wake-up call to legislators across the country.  African hairbraiders nationwide are ready and willing to share their passion for natural hair care with the nation-if only the bureaucrats would just set them free.
     Founded in 1991, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice has a long record of success in representing entrepreneurial Davids against government Goliaths.  IJ opened up hairbraiding markets in Arizona, California, the District of Columbia, Minnesota, Mississippi and Washington.  IJ led the effort to strike down Tennessee’s casket sales licensing scheme as unconstitutional.  This marked the first federal appeals court victory for economic liberty since the New Deal.    It opened taxicab markets in Denver, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, the limousine market in Las Vegas, and removed the New York City Council’s veto over new dollar van operators.
  Download the report: A Dream Deferred: Legal Barriers to African Hairbraiding Nationwide by going to: http://www.ij.org.
Valerie Bayham contributed to this press release by AANewswire.