Dillard's says 'ethnic' hair harder to clean in response to discrimination suit
Vaughan Thomas says a Dillard's hairstylist told her it was the company's practice to charge black clients more than white clients.
By Emanuella Grinberg
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.
"These factors would typically indicate that the pricing for the shampooing, conditioning and styling of the African-American client would normally be higher than that of the Caucasian client," Westman claims.
The cosmetic chemist is expected to appear in Birmingham federal court this week to testify on Dillard's behalf in a hearing on whether the individual lawsuits should be consolidated under one class-action lawsuit.
The lead attorney for Dillard's, Brian Bostick, said he expected to finish his case by Thursday. He declined to comment further, citing orders from Dillard's. The company's in-house general counsel did not return calls for comment.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs presented their case two weeks ago in support of their argument that Dillard's alleged pricing scheme was part of a systematic effort to charge customers across the country solely on the basis of race.
One of the advantages to class-certification would be the plaintiffs' ability to seek an injunction against Dillard's from continuing its race-based pricing, said lead attorney, Patrick Cooper.
"It's amazing to me that a Fortune 500 company would use this kind of pseudo-science in court to prove that it takes longer to wash African-American hair," Cooper said.
"The day they can show me that every black woman in the country has the same hair is the day I'll ask the judge to dismiss the case immediately," he said.