Michigan's largest brewery in hot water over racial discrimination lawsuit

A racial discrimination lawsuit has shaken the Michigan beer industry -- and it seems the fallout is only beginning.

Founders. (WDIV)
Founders. (WDIV)

Morning Dive 🏊

Founders Brewing is Michigan's largest brewery and one of the largest in the United States. 

Founders is one of Michigan's more impressive business stories of the past generation. The company started in Grand Rapids in 1998 with a small idea and last month the owners sold a 90 percent stake in the company for $200 million. 

But, all of those good feelings are currently on hold amid fallout from a racial discrimination lawsuit that claims Founders has a racist work environment.

Here's a look at what the lawsuit is all about, how Founders has reacted to it, and what the fallout has been.

Lawsuit background

According to the suit, Tracy Evans worked at Founders from 2014 to 2018. The lawsuit alleges Evans, who is black, was fired shortly after telling a supervisor he was going to meet with human resources to discuss a racist work environment.

Co-workers used racial slurs around Evans and the company called its printer managers used the "white guy printer," while the general employee printer was named the "black guy printer" the lawsuit states.

Deposition controversy

Last week, transcripts released from a deposition hearing for the lawsuit showed a Detroit Founders manager telling a court that not only did he not know Evans was black -- he also claimed he didn't know if anyone was black.

Here's some of that conversation from court: (Evans' attorney, Jack Schulz, interviewed Founders General Manager Dominic Ryan)

Schulz: OK, are you aware Tracy is Black?

Ryan: What do you mean by that?

Schulz: Are you aware Tracy is African-American?

Ryan: I'm not sure of his lineage, so I can't answer that.

Schulz: Alright. Are you aware that Tracy is a man of color?

Ryan: What do you mean by that?

Schulz: No? Do you know … You don't know what it means for someone to be a white person or a Black person?

Ryan: I'm asking for clarification.

Schulz: You don't need any. I can promise you that. We'll keep the record as is. Someone's skin color. A white …

Ryan: So that's what you're referring to?

Schulz: Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah.

Ryan: OK. Yes, I know the difference in skin tone.

Schulz: Are you able to identify individuals by their skin tone?

Ryan: What do you mean "identify"?

Schulz: I mean have you ever looked at Tracy Evans in your entire life? Have you? That's a … that's a genuine question.

Founders Attorney: Objection. Argumentative.

Founders Attorney: You can answer.

Ryan: Yes.

Schulz: And did you ever realize that Tracy's skin [is] Black?

Ryan: That's not … I mean, is his skin different from mine? Yes.

Schulz: How?

Ryan: What do you mean "how"? It's a different color.

Schulz: And what is the difference of that color?

Ryan: It's darker.

Schulz: And that means?

Founders Attorney: Objection. Vague question.

Schulz: I mean, we could … This could be a one-sentence answer, you know. So by your … I guess your testimony is you have no idea if Tracy is a minority, if he's African-American?

Ryan: I don't know Tracy's lineage, so I can't speculate on whether he's … if he's from Africa or not.

Schulz: What do you mean lineage, from Africa?

Ryan: No. I mean, like, I don't know his DNA.

Ryan continued on to tell the court that he wasn't sure if Michael Jordan, Kwame Kilpatrick or Barack Obama were black because he hadn't ever met them. Read the full court transcript here.

Reaction, fallout, closures, protests

The controversy led to Founders pulling out of the Michigan Brewers Guild 11th Annual Fall Festival last weekend.

Last Friday, Founders announced it would be closing its Detroit taproom "until further notice" due to safety concerns.

"We have committed to working closely with our employees to make any changes to the company that need to be made to ensure a positive future. Those conversations are underway."

On Saturday, Founders employees staged a peaceful protest of the closing

Founders diversity and inclusion director Graci Harkema resigned from the company, while slamming Founders management for their handling of the lawsuit.

"I have dedicated myself to a life and career of equity, ethics, integrity, and morals. I cannot represent a company who doesn't stand for the same," Harkema wrote in a letter posted to Facebook.

These problems are likely to continue hitting the company's bottom line as a number of Detroit bars and restaurants have stopped selling Founders' products. 

Morning Musings 🤔

Today is Lady Liberty's day. 

On Oct. 28, 1886, The Statue of Liberty, a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of the United States, is dedicated in New York Harbor by President Grover Cleveland.

In 1892, Ellis Island, adjacent to Bedloe's Island, opened as the chief entry station for immigrants to the United States, and for the next 32 years more than 12 million immigrants were welcomed into New York harbor by the sight of "Lady Liberty."

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

- Ken Haddad (Have a comment or topic idea? Contact me: Email | Twitter)

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Housekeeping 🧹

Hey, if you like this newsletter, let us know. We'd love your feedback. We also offer several other newsletters that probably cater to at least one of your interests -- unless you're only interested in carpet. We don't have one for carpet. Sorry.

- Ken Haddad (Have something to say or a topic idea? Contact me: Email | Twitter)

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