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Bankole: Founders case a hard lesson on inclusion

Bankole Thompson
Founders Brewing Company's Detroit taproom at 456 Charlotte Street.

It was probably smart on the part of Founders Brewing Co. to quickly settle with former black employee Tracy Evans after an explosive deposition in a racial discrimination lawsuit became public. At the heart of the deposition which grabbed headlines for days was Founders Detroit general manager Dominic Ryan claiming he didn't know Evans was black.

To make matters worse, Ryan in the deposition also claimed he could not tell if former President Barack Obama, basketball great Michael Jordan and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick were also black because he had never met them.

Whatever legal strategy his answers sought to convey in the deposition, they were racially insulting, demeaning and jaw-dropping. It's preposterous, and an arrogant display of white privilege, that in 2019 a white man who manages a business with operations in a major black city like Detroit would pretend not to know who is black. It was an attempt to render Evans invisible even as he sought to make claims of legitimate discontent.

The case brought alive Ralph Ellison’s didactic book, “Invisible Man,” written during the heat of the civil rights movement. The book chronicles the invisibility of Ellison as a black man and how the dominant culture pretends not to see racial identity.

"They see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination-indeed, everything and anything except me," Ellison writes.

The book should be required reading for all future managers of the beer company.

But beyond news of the settlement, the case leaves an important diversity and inclusion challenge for many other businesses — whether big or small. How they treat black employees and encourage a racially diverse workforce should matter to all business that want to succeed and grow.

There’s a strong business case to be made for embracing and respecting racial diversity on the workforce. It is not affirmative action. It is about the bottom line.  

McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm in a 2015 report on diversity found that “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”

“In the U.S., ethnic/racial diversity has a stronger impact on financial performance than gender diversity, with earlier pushes to increase women’s representation in the top levels of business having already yielded positive results,” according to the report.

But the report also offered this undeniable truth: “One of the most important lessons is that diversity does not simply happen — it does not come from a memo or end with the recruitment of a few individuals from target groups. Rather, diversity in the top team and, indeed, at all levels of an organization is best achieved through dedicated programs that focus on specific goals.”

Also missing in the quest for a truly inclusive leadership in business, as the Founders case underscored, is the growing need to build accountability systems within companies so managers and others in senior leadership can be held accountable for actions relating to creating an atmosphere that breeds respect of diverse cultures.

In fact, the issue of racial diversity also took center stage during a panel discussion I participated in last Wednesday convened by the Detroit Athletic Club regarding the future of Detroit’s recovery. I emphasized the need for us to focus more on intentional diversity in this recovery and demand real results that will increase the cultural competence of some of the entities that are driving the recovery. In doing so, we can lift the cover from those who have been condemned to invisibility and embrace the humanity of the next Tracy Evans, who may have a claim that speaks to the collective experience of the black community.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at 11:00 a.m. weekdays on Superstation 910AM.