The Supreme Court, frequently accused of splitting hairs, is now being asked to consider follicles.
The case involves pseudofolliculitis barbae , PFB for short, or "razor bumps" if you prefer the colloquialism. It is a skin disease primarily affecting black men who shave. And therein lies our tale.
Enter one Andrew Woods, a young black man who shaved and subsequently suffered from PFB. His dermatologist prescribed a beard, which ran counter to the dress and grooming code at a Safeway store in Hampton, Va., where Woods was employed as a stock clerk.
Safeway fired Woods for violating its code. Woods is suing Safeway for violating his civil rights. Believe it or not, the case is becoming something of a cause celebre.
The National Medical Association, a predominantly black doctors' group, has entered the legal fracas as a friend of the court. So has the National Black Veterans Organization. If the court decides to hear the case, other sympathetic groups are likely to follow, according to Woods' supporters.
"This is a very important matter," said John W. Garland, one of the lawyers representing the black veterans' group. "If we don't get a favorable ruling, it just spells a lot of trouble for a lot of black men who have to wear beards. It'll make it just that much harder for them to find jobs," he said.
A U.S. District Court and a federal appeals court have already ruled in favor of Safeway. In the first ruling, handed down July 15, 1976, the district court said that there was no proof Safeway adopted its grooming code "with the purpose or intent to discriminate against black employes."
The court also said Safeway's dress and grooming codes were designed to please its customers and that "a business purpose exists to support defendant's 'no beards' rule... that the rationale behind the rule overrides the slight racial impact resulting therefrom."
The district court ruling was upheld July 24, 1978, by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Now, Woods' lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court ruling partly on the ground it could give employers who are so inclined another tool to use in discriminating against blacks.
An estimated 45 to 80 percent of black men are susceptible to PFB, said lawyers, citing figures provided by the National Medical Association.
For many black men, the skin condition is a mild annoyance. But for other blacks, like Woods, the condition is severe and, if aggravated by continued shaving, can result in disfiguring scars, according to briefs filed on Woods' behalf.
In severe cases, PFB is treatable only by allowing beards to grow, the briefs said. Shaving can sharpen the tips of facial hair. If, as in the case of many blacks, the shaved hair is predisposed to curl or loop, it can reenter the facial skin and cause infection, the briefs said.
The National Medical Association said in its brief that growing a beard forces the embedded hairs out of their pseudofollicles, allows the facial skin to heal and in this way relieves PFB.
The brief said Woods took the beard treatment only after trying everything else.
He used electric barber's clippers and depilatories. He bought the finest of electric shavers. He discarded the idea of plucking facial hair as futile.
It was either the beard or the bumps. Woods chose the beard, and was bumped out of a job.