African American Professor Weighs in on Hair Braider Freedom Legislation

Providence, RI -- Quincy Mills, Associate Professor of History, Vassar College, a barbering historian, and author of Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, has weighed in on the so-called hair braider freedom bill that will be heard in a Rhode Island Senate Committee today, by issuing the following statement:

"Policies of all kind should be directly informed by the people who stand to interact with them the most. When legislators seek to regulate spaces they do not frequent or understand, the resulting policies stand to be antithetical to a functioning democracy. As an historian of the barbering industry, I can attest to the discriminatory emergence of licensing laws that regulated barbering and later cosmetology in the early twentieth century. A newly formed white barber's union lobbied state legislatures across the country to convince them that the public was at risk of getting diseases from unsanitary barber shops. To be clear, representatives from the barbers' union wrote these laws. A majority of these barber shops, and barbers, that were targeted were Black. These were Black entrepreneurs who looked to escape a discriminatory job market and work for themselves in an industry with low barriers to entry. Barber licensing laws were the first major barriers for Black men and women to enter the grooming business because those first barber colleges did not admit black students, black barbers were not admitted to the union on an equal basis, and black-owned shops were policed with more regularity than white-owned shops. While there were certainly fine reasons to discuss best practices in safety, sanitation, and health, the impetus stemmed from race-based competition.

Such proposed regulation to license natural hair braiders in Rhode Island sounds eerily similar to this past. Natural hair braiders should not be forced to undergo undue licensing. The very centrality of natural hair braiding is to avoid chemicals, which is the major concern with grooming safety. States should be helping people finds ways to make a living, not erecting barriers to force them to climb higher."

Rhode Island is one of just 16 states that still imposes severe licensing requirements on natural hair braiders.
“While nobody is claiming racial motivations behind the unfair licensing we still see on this culturally-sensitive hair styling art form that involves no public safety risk, we must openly understand the disparate impact such laws have on minority communities,” said Ray Rickman, co-founder of the newly formed coalition, who will introduce the above statement by Professor Mills as written testimony at the Senate hearing today. “More families in our state must have more access to more income-earning opportunities like natural hair braiding.”
Senate Bill S2323, which will be heard in the Senate Commerce Committee today (State House room 212), would exempt natural hair braiders from the requirement to be licensed as hairdressers or cosmeticians, while also defining the safe practice of natural hair braiding. The House Corporations Committee heard similar legislation on Tuesday. In 2017, the House unanimously passed the legislation, but the Senate failed to take any action.

Formed in 2017, the RI Families Coalition is a bi-partisan initiative in the state. The coalition is comprised of civil society leaders from across the philosophical spectrum, whose mission is to identify issues of common concern, where mutually agreeable solutions can be advanced. Currently, the RI Families steering committee includes Rickman (Director, Stages of Freedom), Mike Stenhouse (CEO RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity), and Johanna Harris(attorney, author, and former Chair of the Providence Licensing Board), and Gary Sasse (director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Integrity and former state director of administration).

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