In late February, Athens City Council passed an ordinance that expanded discrimination provisions within the city’s code and defined the procedure for which discrimination claims would be processed.
The ordinance further defines the term “race” under the Community Relations Commission’s definitions listed within the city’s discrimination code. The updated definition extends race to traits, such as hair textures and protective and cultural hairstyles that are historically associated with race. The ordinance lists examples of such styles as braids, locs, cornrows, bantu knots, afros and twists.
Councilman Micah McCarey, D-At Large, introduced the ordinance after Jordan Pazol, a 2021 Ohio University graduate, brought a California law — The Crown Act — to his attention in hopes something similar could be implemented in Athens. The Crown Act is an anti-discrimination law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of hairstyle and texture.
“I've known Micah for a couple years now, and when he got elected (to) City Council, I wanted to look into what could be done on a city level,” Pazol said.
The Community Relations Commission, a volunteer body that ensures equality and harmony is maintained in Athens, is tasked with addressing any complaints that fall under the discrimination code, Lisa Eliason, city law director, said.
“It is not new for the Athens Community Relations Commission to field discriminatory complaints,” McCarey said in a Council meeting. “However, in looking back through the minutes and notes from our Athens Community Relations Commission, this isn't something that they have processed on many occasions, which I think reflects the awareness challenge that we'll have to address through education.”
John Schmieding, chair of the commission, said after receiving a complaint regarding the updated definitions, the commission would likely try to mediate any situations by discussing them. However, because the ordinance was recently passed, specific mediation techniques have not been discussed, he said.
“This will be a criminal case no different than a drunk driving case or domestic violence. You have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Eliason said. “Just because it's a minor misdemeanor doesn't make the burden of proof any less.”
Schmieding said if those remedies are not successful in addressing certain situations, the complaint would likely then be directed to the Athens Police Department. Eliason and the city law department would prosecute any cases if an APD investigation yielded enough information.
“I think having both of those as options is really good,” Pazol said. “I think there are times when it is an awareness thing, and there are certainly times when it is an act of malicious discrimination.”
Schmieding said the Community Relations Commission works closely with the city to hold community programs called “Food for Thought,” in which the commission speaks with community members about issues of discrimination. He also said it is likely the commission would hold a similar event to spread awareness about the new provisions so people know how to report a potential case of discrimination.
“I think part of what we would try to do is get some perspective from people who've faced that kind of discrimination before and let some of those stories get told,” Schmieding said. “I'm quite sure we would hold some kind of community program that would include discussion of that and might also include broader discussions about racism and impacts of racism.”
McCarey said he knew of two potential complaints since the ordinance was passed, one of which is related to discrimination based on ability. The second complaint was from a community member questioning whether the protections would apply to their situation.