Last week, an ongoing racial discrimination lawsuit between Founders Brewing Company and former employee Tracy Evans filed in 2018 made national news after the Detroit Metro Times published a leaked court transcript of a deposition between Evans’ lawyer, Jack Schulz, and Founders’ Detroit general manager, Dominic Ryan. Evans, who was fired in June 2018, filed the lawsuit in August 2018, alleging he was terminated in retaliation for formal complaints he made regarding racial discrimination he experienced at the company.
The transcript shows Schulz asking Ryan whether he acknowledges Evans is black, African American, or a minority, which Evans is. Ryan, who is reportedly the manager responsible for Evans’ termination last year, refuses to answer the question, saying he is unaware of Evans’ “lineage” or “DNA.” He says the same about Michael Jordan, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and former President Barack Obama.
After it was leaked, headlines were ablaze, bars and retailers announced boycotts of the brand, and beer community members took to social media to share their outrage.
Just hearing about the #foundersbrewing story, and plan on sharing with my job.
Fingers crossed, hope they understand why we need to take that beer off tap immediately 😒
— Black Girls Drink (@BlackGirlsDrink) October 22, 2019
Ryan’s remarks are understandably upsetting to many people, but the deposition and its aftermath are a small part of a much bigger-picture problem at Founders and the craft beer community at large. Although the court has yet to decide where it stands on the “racist internal corporate culture” Evans alleges exists at Founders, “the behavior of Founders via the lawsuit points at a few glaring realities about the craft brew world,” Breannah R. Alexander Oppenhuizen, Disability and Racial Justice Organizer at Michigan Disability Rights Coalition, told VinePair in a message on Tuesday.
“[I]n order to improve the dynamics of racial bias and inequity that is pervasive in the industry, brewers must first acknowledge that racial bias is an issue that affects who they view as their clients, versus who they don’t care to appeal to,” Oppenhuizen said, adding she also experienced racial discrimination as a guest at Founders’ Grand Rapids location in 2017. “Who you view as your clientele affects who are acceptable victims in the context of racial discrimination and bias internally and externally.”
Evans’ allegations and the public’s response to them indicate this lawsuit stands for more than one person’s or one brewery’s experience. They reveal the vast divide between members of the beer community who think the treatment Evans allegedly received is O.K., and those who vow to never drink Founders beer again. It’s a schism that mirrors national and global conversations showing a need for sea change. The question is, who will direct its course?
In June 2018, Evans, who first served as a production lead in the packaging department at Founders’ Grand Rapids location, then as events and promotions manager in Detroit, was fired just days after planning to file a second formal complaint to human resources regarding racist comments made by fellow employees. He had filed his first formal complaint in 2017. Following his termination, Evans filed a lawsuit in August 2018.
“I was wise enough to keep some sort of paper trail, because had I not done that, this would have been done and over with a long time ago,” Evans said in a recent interview with CultureShift on NPR’s WDET. “Right now it is just not enough [for people of color] to say we’ve been discriminated against.”
Founders admits two employees used the “n” word around Evans on at least two occasions, but claims Evans was terminated due to “poor performance.” Dave Engbers, Founders co-founder and president, believes Evans was treated fairly at the company’s Detroit and Grand Rapids locations. “We abhor any type of discrimination, so as soon as we found out about anything that had happened to Tracy, we brought HR [human resources] in and we think we handled it appropriately,” Engbers told VinePair in a phone call last Friday. “The discrimination lawsuit is based on wrongful termination [and] the claim that he was terminated because of his race, and that is absolutely false.”
Engbers confirmed the “n” word incidents, and referred to the situation as “a learning opportunity.” He said he learned that “using that word is terrible, and that we will not tolerate it.” Asked how he planned to fix any issues within the company, he said, “When that happened we hired a diversity and inclusion director [Graci Harkema], we’ve put in a program in place and we’ve gone through a heck of a lot of training for all of our employees.” He described Harkema’s efforts “going through unconscious bias training, diversity training, LGBTQ and gender identity training, and inclusion training” with Founders’ sales, retail, and production teams. “She’s been very busy,” Engbers said.
Harkema announced her resignation later that day, on Oct. 25, 2019. Her last day with Founders will be Friday, Nov. 8, 2019.
In her resignation letter, Harkema refers to Founders prioritizing winning the lawsuit over listening to her suggestions to amend a flawed corporate culture. As a result, she writes, “we have lost the trust of the community, many of our accounts, and many of our own employees… The prioritization of diversity and inclusion begins at the top. We are not experiencing a staff issue, we are experiencing a leadership issue.”
Some criticize Founders for hiring Harkema and not heeding her advice. “For them, hiring someone black in a ‘leadership’ position was their solution, and not dealing with the ways in which they’ve built a harmful and highly inequitable business,” Oppenhuizen said.
Still, others feel Harkema, a black woman, should not have taken the position with Founders in the first place.
I’m sorry but if you stood for something what was the point of taking the job in the first place? Serious question. You took a job at a company that admittedly LET their employee’s call a black man a nigger & foster other racist behavior? Make it make sense. https://t.co/D5r45tSHAq
— April Newly Me (@AprilNewlyMe) October 25, 2019
Despite strong and adverse reactions in virtually every direction, Founders remains unscathed financially. Its beer sales increased 9 percent in the first three quarters of 2019, and are up 7 percent in Detroit since this time last year, Good Beer Hunting reports. And, in August 2019, Founders sold an additional 59 percent stake (after an initial 30 percent stake) to Spanish conglomerate brewery Mahou San Miguel in a deal valued at $198 million.
In other words, racist accusations and their subsequent public backlash have yet to negatively affect the brewery’s bottom line.
“What I found significant about Tracy’s situation versus others is the level of lack of accountability … and what we considered piles of evidence,” Schulz, Evans’ lawyer, who is an employment and civil rights attorney, told CultureShift. “We believed that a mutual happy ending could occur … and cause industry-wide change,” he continued. “We have been met with a roadblock on that.”
Oppenhuizen agrees accountability goes beyond Founders. “I think the case Evans brought against Founders matters for all people of color existing in predominantly white organizations, even beyond craft beer,” she said. “I have been thrilled to see the businesses that have publicly begun to pull their support from the company, and the craft brew fanatics that have public stated their dismay and removal of support in favor of battling an exclusive space. That is the work that will improve craft brewing, and it goes without saying that much of the accountability work around this ongoing situation has been led by POC in the craft brew world.”
Evans said he filed this lawsuit because he “saw a chance to use my voice and tell my story,” he told CultureShift. To others who have experienced discrimination, assault, or any other form of workplace misconduct, he added, “You have a voice and you can use it. We have a chance to change things and make things better. [Founders needs] to look inside their internal culture and make some changes, not only for themselves, but for everyone.”