I Sued The Bachelor for Race Discrimination Nearly a Decade Ago: Behind the Scenes in The Bachelor’s Pattern of Exclusion
The Bachelor franchise has a race problem. I should know. Long before casting Matt James as the first Black Bachelor, our team, including civil rights attorneys Byron Perkins and George Barrett, mounted the only race discrimination class action against the franchise. Nearly a decade later it is past time The Bachelor confronts these issues and does so for the “right reasons.”
In 2012, Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson tackled discrimination on The Bachelor following multiple seasons of racial exclusion in the casting of the series’ lead contestant. Both Claybrooks, a well-liked former football player, and Johnson, who followed the show from season one, alleged that they were marginalized in the contestant process due to their race. Our legal team quickly pulled photos of the show’s 23 lead contestants at that time. Not a single Black male or female was included.
After the case was filed, a surreal set of events happened. Michael Fleiss, the show’s creator, made astonishingly racially-charged public statements. In challenging the exclusion of Black contestants, Fleiss said that one woman may have been “1/16 Cherokee Indian, but I cannot confirm. But that is my suspicion.” Fleiss also alleged that sometimes they “have to wedge African American chicks in there.” The real kicker was when Fleiss claimed “We always want to cast for ethnic diversity, it’s just that for whatever reason they don’t come forward.” Yet Claybrooks and Johnson had already come forward, and they weren’t alone. Lamar Hurd, an impressive African American sportscaster from Portland, Oregon, emerged as the focus of a social media campaign to be the first Black Bachelor, with the Huffington Post declaring in essence: “Here is a tremendous candidate for you. Wake up.”
I had a rare chance to go behind the scenes of The Bachelor when I took a series of depositions. Before one deposition, the show’s staff gave me a tour of the office and proudly showcased a wall of beaming contestants from around the country. Every contestant appeared white. The show came nowhere close to representing the wonderful racial and ethnic diversity of America.
It became apparent to us that The Bachelor’s decision makers program had a business plan of exclusion fearing a drop in ratings if they had Blacks hold lead roles. This explains why fans had to wait until 2017 before Rachel Lindsay was cast as the first Black Bachelorette and another four years until Matt James was cast. That’s too little too late.
It is not surprising to see this season of The Bachelor mired in racial controversy. Just a few weeks into this season, Rachel Kirkconnell, who received Matt James’ final rose, was exposed for having attended antebellum parties celebrating the old South and allegedly having liked Confederate flags and other racially insensitive images. Then the anchor of the series, Chris Harrison, landed on a self-declared leave of absence after vigorously coming to Kirkconnell’s defense during an interview with Rachel Lindsay, and complaining that the “woke police” has no business telling Kirkconnell if and when she should explain or account for her actions. These controversies would never have happened if racially diverse casting became routine.
The current controversy demonstrates what we tried to prove before a Nashville federal court dismissed our case on first amendment grounds: The Bachelor has a deep and systemic race problem that will require major change to overcome. As for the first amendment, another federal judge in an unrelated case found that equal opportunity laws and the first amendment can coexist in the entertainment industry side by side.
Yes, America’s hearts are ready for the kind of casting diversity that we are seeing on this season with a record number of Black women and women of color. Having Emmanuel Acho host “After the Final Rose” was a step in the right direction, but more must be done to ensure that the franchise is promoting healthy dialogue around race, to ensure that all show participants feel valued and respected, and that the show is not reinforcing dangerous stereotypes.
First, this season shouldn’t be an experiment. All future seasons should feature participants that reflect the rich diversity of our country. To be competitive and innovative all organizations must seek to be inclusive and champions of equal opportunity and let the best rise to the top. Ratings will go up, not down, when reflecting all of America. Indeed, TV shows with diverse casts have higher ratings than all white casts.
Second, the new hosts of the upcoming Bachelorette season, Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe, should encourage open discussion about race, difference and diversity. To date, these topics take place in the margins, drowned out by the show’s overemphasis on group dates, hometowns, and visits to the fantasy suite. The show has a well-established history of not just tolerating odious conduct, but also encouraging it for dramatic purposes.
Third, The Bachelor should ensure zero tolerance for racism and discrimination, on-or off-camera. Chris Harrison’s apologist stance toward Kirkconnell sends a message to the public suggesting the franchise’s tolerance for odious conduct. The show has a well-established history of not just tolerating odious conduct but also encouraging it for dramatic purposes, even casting people with racist backgrounds, potentially to encourage drama on the show. Rachel Lindsay’s season cast Lee Garrett, who also had a history of insensitive tweets and seemed to relish in letting him antagonize a black contestant.
What if the wall of potential contestants that I saw nearly ten years ago behind the scenes at the Bachelor reflected the beauty of all Americans — all colors, complexions, and ethnicities. That is America the Beautiful. Let’s embrace it.
Cyrus Mehri is a civil rights lawyer and founding partner at Mehri & Skalet, PLLC, based in Washington, D.C.