When Margurite Sylva came to America from Senegal in West Africa, she was looking for economic opportunity. But she also had a cultural mission. She wanted, says her business partner Ali Rasheed, "to teach African Americans the traditional braiding styles of their ancestors, thousands of years old." To get the required license, she went to cosmetology school. There she learned state-mandated techniques based on flapper-era hairstyles and 1950s permanent waves and heard not a word about braids, cornrows, hairlocking, or any other styles designed for the natural textures of African hair. As far as the state was concerned, the only thing to do with such hair was chemically straighten it.
Sylva opened up a small, somewhat clandestine shop devoted exclusively to braiding. It grew rapidly, developing a three-month waiting list. To expand, she hooked up with Rasheed and his wife. Their joint venture, the Braiderie, did not stay in the informal market, however. It operated openly, built up a 400-person client base in its first year, and soon added a second San Diego area shop.
That's when state regulators came calling. They fined the Braiderie $100 for "aiding and abetting" unlicensed braiding activity. Many of the shop's seven braiders learned their craft in Africa and have neither the 1,600 hours nor $5,000 to $7,000 it takes to get a California cosmetology license, which is irrelevant to their work anyway.
Now the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm, is suing the state of California on behalf of hair braiders like Sylva. It argues that the state's cosmetology regulations have no relationship to the services performed by natural African hair stylists and therefore deprive them of their economic liberties under the California and U.S. Constitutions.
"What we seek is a rule of law that requires that when government regulates entry into a business or profession its regulations must be reasonably related to health and safety objectives," says IJ litigation director Clint Bolick. "This very common sense standard cannot possibly be met by the cosmetology regulatory regime."
"You go from a few thousand dollars to a business that is supporting seven or eight people, plus people in a foreign country who can't make a living. We think that's the American dream," says Rasheed. "And to be penalized for doing this by somebody who has no idea what you do, somebody who is really trying to protect their industry, we think is un-American."