Isis Brantley has been practicing the art of African hair braiding professionally in Dallas for more than 30 years. She started braiding music star Erykah Badu’s hair when Badu was 9 years old, and she’s shared her craft with hundreds of others, including teaching welfare recipients to braid as a path out of poverty.
The state of Texas has fought Brantley every step of the way, insisting she comply with barbering regulations that have no bearing on her work, and arresting her when she tried to open a Dallas salon.
Brantley was in Austin on Monday for the start of what she hopes will be the last chapter of that decades-long battle
“I’m asking the government to get out of the way so I can teach the next generation of hair braiders and earn an honest living,” she said.
A federal court in January ruled that Texas laws restricting Brantley’s ability to open a hair braiding school were unconstitutional. State lawmakers are now considering legislation to drop restrictions on the hair braiding industry altogether. The House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee heard testimony Monday from Brantley and her attorney on House Bill 2717 by state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, which would exempt braiders from having to obtain a cosmetology license to practice their trade.
Texas law requires extensive training and basic minimum facilities for licensed barbers and cosmetologists. Those requirements extend to hair braiders, even though braiders do not use chemicals, tools, barber chairs or sinks.
Brantley told the committee that, like most braiders, she doesn’t even use scissors or combs — just her hands.
“Licensing should be reserved for occupations that have a real and substantial safety problem or interest,” said Arif Panju, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, representing Brantley.
Goldman’s bill would exempt braiders from all barbering and cosmetology requirements.
“Ironically, for a licensed hair braider, the barbering and cosmetology schools they must attend do not teach hair braiding, nor are there continuing education courses for hair braiding offered in the state of Texas,” Goldman told the committee. He called the regulations “onerous and unnecessary.”
Since Brantley dropped out of college in 1980 and began braiding hair for a living, those regulations have made it difficult for her — and braiders across Texas — to practice her trade openly. Brantley started her business in her kitchen, away from the eyes of state regulators. After 12 years, she tried to open a salon.
“As soon as I opened up the shop, wow, the red tape was wrapped around my hands,” she said. “Seven cops came in, in front of my clients, and arrested me and took me to jail like a common criminal. The crime was braiding without a cosmetology license.”
Brantley spent much of the next decade challenging hair braiding restrictions in court. In 2007, the 1,500-hour training requirement for braiders to receive a cosmetology license was dropped to 35 hours, and Brantley was “grandfathered in” and awarded a license.
“Isis said, this is perfectly safe. We don’t need a license. We don’t want a license,” Panju said. “Barbering and cosmetology really is the pinnacle of how occupational licensing has reached such an extent that it’s now stifling entrepreneurs.”
Brantley won the right to braid hair, but her legal battle with the state wasn’t over. She had already taught hundreds of others to braid, and in 2013 she tried to start teaching formal classes in her shop. But state regulators told Brantley she needed 2,250 hours of instruction and a 2,000-square-foot facility to open a barber school. Once again, she was told she would have to buy barber chairs and wash stations that aren’t necessary for braiding hair, in accordance with Texas Barbering Administrative Rules devised for professional barber schools.
So Brantley sued the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, arguing that the requirements to open a school violated her 14th Amendment equal protection rights by preventing her, and those who wanted to learn from her, from earning an honest living.
In January 2015, a U.S. district court in Austin sided with Brantley and struck down the training and equipment requirements to open a braiding school. During the trial, Panju said, the state couldn’t identify a single hair braiding school that was able to open under the strict requirements.
“[The ruling] makes it crystal clear to the Legislature that what’s happening here is nothing to do with public health and safety and everything to do with economic protectionism,” Panju said.
At the committee meeting, state Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, apologized to Brantley “on behalf of the state of Texas.” Vice Chairman Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, said he supported Goldman’s bill “wholeheartedly” but emphasized the need for regulating other barbering and cosmetology businesses. No one at the hearing testified against the bill.
Brantley said regulations on the hair braiding industry are a major roadblock to the “upward mobility of the impoverished community,” where the art of African hair braiding is most prevalent.
Brantley said she’s helped poor Dallas residents open their own braiding businesses, feed their families and clothe their children.
“That’s the American dream that I want to be a part of,” Brantley said. “Cut the red tape. Help people learn this art and go to work.”