Tracy Evans is black.
He was black enough to become one of the first employees of color at Founders Brewing Co., a famed craft brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His race was never a question when a co-worker called him the n-word, he said, or when he started speaking up about that comment and other offensive remarks from colleagues. In fact, it’s the reason he ended up suing Founders in late 2018, charging that the company treated him differently and ended up firing him for being African American.
But his former general manager, Dominic Ryan, insisted in a deposition for that lawsuit that he could not definitively conclude whether Evans is black.
“I don’t know Tracy’s lineage, so I can’t speculate on whether he’s – if he’s from Africa or not,” Ryan said in the deposition, which was first obtained by Detroit Metro Times and later provided by Evans’ lawyer to The Washington Post on Monday.
In front of several attorneys, Ryan – who is white – was able to muster up that his former employee’s skin is “different.” He eventually admitted that Evans was “darker.” But Ryan didn’t know his former employee’s DNA, he said. Asked whether Evans is a man of color, he avoided the question. What about Michael Jordan? “I’ve never met him,” Ryan said. Former president Barack Obama? Same thing.
Evan’s case – and Ryan’s deposition – have sparked outrage this week in the craft brewing world, a notoriously white industry with long-standing diversity issues. Evans said his case also shows how white managers like Ryan might “have utter disregard for people of color and the things that we go through.”
Evans was hired six years ago as a packing machine operator at Founders’ Grand Rapids facility, he said in a lawsuit, filed in August 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Since its opening over two decades ago, Founders, the largest brewery in Michigan, has made a name for itself among craft beer lovers for its breakfast stouts, which are brewed with coffee and chocolate.
But as one of just three minority employees in a staff of 70 at Founders, he said he soon found the company turned “a blind eye to racism” and allowed “an overtly racist culture.”
Inside the brewery, an airy, two-story brick building in downtown Grand Rapids, the printer meant for management was named the “white guy printer,” while the “black guy printer” was located downstairs for lower-rung staffers, he alleged. One staffer used a racial slur to his face, Evans said.
Nearly a year into his employment, Evans said, he was passed over for a promotion in favor of two more recently hired employees, both of whom were white. Evans had trained both of them, but it was their behavior at a company party that was especially alarming: One had drunkenly crashed his car into another vehicle, while the other employee had allegedly exposed himself to the crowd.
When Founders opened a taproom in Detroit in 2017, Evans saw it as a chance for a fresh start. He received a promotion to manage promotions and events for the new branch, the first time his company had expanded outside Grand Rapids.
But the Detroit taproom didn’t prove to be much better, he claimed. One co-worker, noticing that the brewery was starting to attract more African American customers, made a comment about the establishment’s “dark” clientele. Later, he called one of Detroit’s former black mayors, Kwame Kilpatrick, the “head [n-word] in charge.”
Despite complaints from Evans and some co-workers, that employee wasn’t disciplined beyond a single write-up.
“These racist things went on and he went to HR immediately,” said Jack Schulz, Evans’s lawyer, “and basically from that point forward, their views on him soured.”
Frustrated by the situation, he took a personal day to drive back to Grand Rapids and meet with the human resources officers in person. But when he returned to work the following week in late 2017, he was fired almost immediately, with his bosses citing missed deadlines on a project.
So he sued, alleging he was discriminated against on the basis of his race. In preparation for a possible jury trial, Schulz deposed three Founders managers, including Ryan, on Sept. 25 of this year. That’s when Ryan denied to confirm that his former employee is black.
The brewery acknowledged that Evans is black in court documents, but Ryan would not admit to a similar claim.
“Are you aware Tracy is African-American?” Schulz asked, according to the deposition.
“I’m not sure of his lineage,” Ryan said, “so I can’t answer that.”
Schulz suspects the move is tactical: To argue on whether Founders discriminated against Evans as a minority, his managers must first acknowledge that he is one.
“It’s such a corporate, calculated dialogue that he won’t even admit that he knows whether Michael Jordan is black, or Barack Obama is black,” Schulz said in an interview with The Post. “The cost is the loss of all credibility.”
Schulz said that he didn’t buy Ryan’s “defense of colorblindness,” noting that the two men had known each other even before they started working together.
“Obviously, there’s a broad spectrum in terms of race. But this is a man you’ve known for seven years,” he said. “If you don’t know that he’s a black guy, then what have you been doing for seven years? . . . Especially knowing and representing Tracy, who openly talks about how race affects his life, it’s absurd.”
In a statement on Monday, Founders argued that Ryan’s deposition has been taken out of context.
“Mr. Ryan was simply saying that he does not assume anything about individuals’ race or ethnicity unless they tell him that information,” the company said. “While it might be acceptable to speculate about this type of thing in casual conversation, Mr. Ryan was not having a casual conversation. He was under oath when he made these statements.”
Reached by phone late Monday, Patrick Edsenga, the brewery’s lawyer, declined to comment further.
Evans has been focused on raising awareness of discrimination and harassment in the service industry, organizing workshops, bringing in lawyers to offer training, and connecting others with counseling focused on support.
“There’s this blind ignorance, and to me that’s the larger story,” he told the Metro Times. “A lot of these white-owned companies – and it’s not just Detroit, it’s all over the country – come in and have this sort of blindness to overt racism, and it has to be called out.
“How can one expect to know what minorities go through,” he said, “if they can’t even acknowledge that [some employees are] minorities?”