Taalib-Din Uqdah1

African Americans have marched a long way down the road to individual freedom and equality. Groups like the NAACP remain ever vigilant protecting and advancing our gains. But there is a missing link in the Civil Rights Movement—one that is often undervalued by most civil rights groups. That is, the right to “economic liberty.”

The Black entrepreneur is engaged in a civil rights struggle, too. For much of our history, traditional employment opportunities were severely limited or closed to African Americans. The achievable pathway to the American Dream for us was entrepreneurship—starting our own businesses and creating economic opportunities for ourselves and others. But today, instead of tending to businesses, many black entrepreneurs find themselves fighting for the simple right to practice a trade and earn an honest living. In the 1950s, only one in 20 U.S. workers needed a license to pursue their chosen occupations. Today, that figure is almost one in three.

No American should be forced to choose between earning an honest living and risking fines or jail time, but that is the choice faced by many African American entrepreneurs. And it is the situation I found myself in when, with a modest $500 investment, I, along with my wife, opened Cornrows & Co., a Washington, D.C. salon that specializes in braiding, twisting and locking hair for African-American women.

After two years in business, in 1982, District of Columbia officials informed me that corn-rowing hair was in violation of a 1938 occupational licensing law that required braiders to obtain a cosmetology license. The license required completing 1,500 hours of training, most of which would be spent learning skills completely unrelated to hair braiding. In 1938, African Americans could not even go into many beauty salons and the law, still in force in 1982, took none of our needs – as service providers or our customers – into account.

I didn’t even know I had violated a law.

An “occupational license” is a government permission slip to work in a particular field. That permission slip is often required not for “health and safety” reasons, or to ensure a person’s knowledge and skill to perform a task, but instead to protect industry insiders from competition. Failure to obtain a license in a licensed profession can bring about hefty fines, or even jail time.

No one in America thinks they can legally drive without a license. Everyone knows that a lawyer has to pass a bar examination to practice law. People understand that a doctor needs a state license to perform surgery. But it is not common knowledge – or commonsense – that one ought to obtain a license to braid, twist or lock hair.

It is not hair braiding that the establishment fears – it is hair braiders. Established salons are afraid that if braiders are exempted from cosmetology licensing, other individuals within the industry might follow suit. Once the entrepreneurial seed is planted, economic liberty grows.

And while economic liberty is poison to politically entrenched interests everywhere, it is nourishment to the entrepreneurial spirit so vital to continued progress in this country, generally, and the future prosperity of African Americans in particular.

Natural hair braiding is a beauty practice popular among many African, African-American and immigrant communities in the United States. The practice of braiding, twisting and locking a person’s natural hair is safe for both the practitioner and the public. Nonetheless, African American natural hair care artisans are required to obtain cosmetology licenses and learn European hair styling techniques that have no applicability to what we do and that many of us reject.

In its recently completed survey of braiding laws in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., “Untangling Regulations: Natural Hair Braiders Fight Against Irrational Licensing,” the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm, found braiding regulations vary dramatically across the country.

Only eleven states do not license natural hair braiders. In the 39 states and the District of Columbia that require a license, the necessary training hours range from six to 2,100. Twenty-four states force natural hair braiders to become licensed as either cosmetologists or hairstylists. The cost to attend a cosmetology school in these states – if they can find one – ranges from $5,000 to upwards of $20,000.  Requirements like these prevent black entrepreneurs from earning an honest living, forcing them underground.

The Institute for Justice represented my wife and me in a successful challenge to the Cosmetology Code of the District of Columbia. As a result, the District deregulated its cosmetology industry, recognizing the economic liberty of hair braiders to practice their craft without the threat of fines or jail time.

Licensing of natural hair braiders specifically and occupational licensing laws in general diminish our economic liberty and crush the entrepreneurial spirit of African Americans. Marching forward, African Americans must look on the black entrepreneur with the same appreciation we hold for Rosa Parks and the Montgomery marchers. We should not cowl to the threats of intimidation through fines or even jail time—we should not sit silently in the back of the economic bus.

Taalib-Din Uqdah is the owner of Cornrows & Co., a hair-braiding salon in Washington, D.C.