April 25, 2006

Lawsuit over beauty salon charging more to style "ethnic hair."

Court TV reports:

Almost three years after Vaughan Thomas says she paid an inflated price at a Montgomery, Ala., hair salon simply for being black, lawyers for Dillard's beauty salons went to court Tuesday to defend the department store from allegations of what Thomas and others call "race-based pricing."

Thomas is one of eight black women suing the department store for racial discrimination after she allegedly was told that Dillard's beauty salons charge black customers more than whites because of the "kinky" nature of "ethnic" hair.

"Hair is hair regardless of what color you are, and the prices should be the same for everybody," Thomas told Courttv.com. "This is a practice that's still being done in the 21st century, and it should be stopped."

While lawyers for Dillard's deny that the retailer practices "race-based pricing," they claim that scientific evidence supports the theory that "ethnic" hair requires more effort to treat — and therefore should be subject to higher pricing.

A defense brief submitted in Alabama federal court cites numerous supposed characteristics of black hair that make treating it more "time consuming and technically demanding than fulfilling the minimal (or non-existent) conditioning needs" of the typical white customer.

"The rendering of professional hair care is a personal service typically tailored to the specific needs and preferences of the individual," Dillard's scientific expert, Mort Westman, said in a deposition. "Numerous factors exist and must be considered during the process of cleansing, conditioning and styling, rendering the resultant treatment somewhat unique."

The brief, which is based in large part on Westman's declaration and a study published in 2003 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, highlights the "highly brittle, tightly curled" texture of ethnic hair as a factor that prolongs the cleansing portion of the treatment.

The brief also refers to "lack of resiliency" and the frequent use of "intricate coiffures" and extensions as other factors that affect the complexity of drying and styling the hair of black customers.

My impression is that hair cutting establishments tend to be fairly clearly segregated into Black (as in the movies "Barbershop" and "Beauty Shop") vs. All Other. So, the issue of racially discriminating on price doesn't come up much because only one type of customer visits a typical salon.

The same is true for hair care products. Years ago in Chicago, the in-laws of the nice Korean family that did our drycleaning opened a hair care products store next door. So, my wife and I dropped in on their opening day and my wife was going to make a token purchase to help get them started. But she couldn't find a single product in the store that was not specifically formulated for blacks' hair. It was really quite a bizarre scene -- a white couple wandering around a store run by new Korean immigrants that sold products only to blacks.

Ever since I've wondered how the Koreans figured out what to stock in their store since they didn't use any of the products themselves. I suppose wholesalers will just give you a full list of what to order. For a high markup business like cosmetic products, you don't really need to know what you're doing -- just be willing to be open long hours in a marginal neighborhood and you'll do okay. It's pretty amazing, though, that Koreans come from 10,000 miles away to sell black beauty products to blacks in a black neighborhood.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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