A fresh reminder of how expanded human rights laws affect us all

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It was the first day of August 1943, and U.S. Army Pvt. Robert Bandy was on leave from his post in Jersey City. Bandy was standing with his mother in the lobby of the Braddock Hotel in Harlem when a scuffle broke out between a black woman and a white police officer. Bandy jumped in to help, only to be thanked with a bullet wound in the shoulder thanks to the officer.

Bandy would survive, but rumors of his demise spread quickly through the city. News of a police officer murdering a black soldier, who served in a segregated military while fighting a world war, exacerbated the city’s existing racial tensions. 

The ensuing riots killed six people in two days, and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia enlisted thousands of police to return order to the city. More than 600 people were arrested, according to contemporaneous news accounts.

In response, LaGuardia announced the formation of the Mayor’s Committee on Unity. Its purpose: “To promote understanding and mutual respect among all the racial groups in our city,” LaGuardia explained during his weekly radio broadcast from Gracie Mansion in February 1944.

Some 75 years later, that committee’s most recent iteration — the city’s human rights commission — investigates and prosecutes discrimination claims in housing, employment and public accommodations for 26 protected classes ranging from race and gender, to lactating mothers and domestic violence victims.

“We say that it’s the most robust and most comprehensive city human rights law in the entire nation,” said Franck Joseph II, an assistant commissioner for the agency, at a June 2 discussion hosted by the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture, not far from where LaGuardia once lived in Fieldston. It’s important “that we let folks know … here in New York City, you can’t discriminate against people because of who they are, because of the choices they make, because of how they identify.”

Expanding law’s reach

The commission most recently added a new protected class to its roster: It is now illegal to discriminate against New Yorkers for their sexual and reproductive health choices. Although not codified into law as its own protected category, the commission also issued legal guidance in February declaring discrimination against natural hairstyles is banned under existing racial and religious discrimination protections. In April, California’s state senate passed a bill that also banned hairstyle discrimination.

“California always tries to outdo New York,” Joseph said at the Ethical Culture event, to laughs. He added the city council and his commission are now in the midst of a policy process making hairstyle discrimination a 27th protected class.

Bans or restrictions on natural hairstyles often target black communities and are “often rooted in white standards of appearance and perpetuate racist stereotypes,” the commission wrote in its legal guidance. 

Often these policies are implemented with the false assumption that locs, cornrows, Bantu knots, and other hairstyles commonly associated with black people are inherently unhygienic and messy. 

Although the legal guidance focuses on discrimination against traditionally black hairstyles, it’s designed to make clear discrimination of any religious or racial sect based on hairstyle is unacceptable in the city’s eyes.

Whether it will become one of the protected classes is unclear, however. Human rights commission spokeswoman Alicia McCauley later wrote the legal guidance was merely “clarification of the existing law” and there was no need to create new law over hairstyles “because it is already the law.”

Yankee fans need not to worry, however. The most successful professional baseball team in history has a longstanding rule banning facial hair for its players. While the policy drummed up in 1973 by notorious crank George Steinbrenner may be antiquated, it is not discrimination. Facial hair, although protected in some circumstances under religious discrimination laws, is not a protected class, McCauley wrote, as long as the policy is applied uniformly across all races and groups.

Joseph serves on the commission’s community relations bureau, responsible for conducting outreach across the city. But the commission enforces discrimination laws as well where agency lawyers examine discrimination complaints, initiate mediations, and file reports to the judges in the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. 

There, the judge rules on the case and files a report with the human rights commission chair, who makes all final rulings. Judgments can cost offenders hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil fines and penalties. Depending on the circumstances, other factors like back pay, back rent and emotional distress payouts can be added on.

Not what it used to be

Although the commission’s 157-person staff is five times the size it was in the late 1990s — “Giuliani gutted it,” remarked audience member Dee Knight — the agency is still a far cry from its heyday of more than 300 staffers under Mayor David Dinkins. Still, the commission is out in the city, fighting for the discriminated — a protected group that grows both broader and more specific with each passing year.

At Ethical Culture, Joseph highlighted some of the projects he and the commission recently worked on in the northwest Bronx. 

He partnered with Community Board 8’s aging committee to educate senior citizens on the signs of age discrimination. And after alleged racist videos of students at Ethical Culture Fieldston School lead to a protest last March, Joseph said his agency approached the school administration there to help combat institutional prejudice. 

“We’ve been speaking to senior level members of the administration to see how we can work closely with the school,” Joseph said. 

The human rights commission wants to offer curriculum on gender and racial discrimination, “not just for the students, but also for the faculty.”

Ultimately, the commission’s goal is not to chase people they say are discriminating all across the city. Instead, the commission promotes a change in culture in the offending institutions, Joseph said, in an effort to prevent future discriminatory incidents. Even in cases where fines are not a factor, the commission has the authority to demand internal policy changes if a landlord, employer or business is found to be discriminatory.

 “Oftentimes that is more than anything that we could ask for,” Joseph said. “That the culture and practices that were unlawful, that were discriminatory, are no longer happening.”

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