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‘Bachelor’ casts its first black lead, but recent incidents show the franchise still has a long way to go

After 24 seasons, ABC’s “The Bachelor” announced Matt James as the show’s first black male lead on June 12. Here's what former contestants think. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Shortly after the announcement that Matt James would become the first black star of “The Bachelor,” journalist Juliet Litman released an episode of her Ringer podcast featuring Rachel Lindsay, the first and only black lead on “The Bachelorette."

“Welcome to an emergency ‘Bachelor Party’ … and man, am I fired up! Rachel, Matt James 919 is the next Bachelor!” Litman exclaimed, referring to James’s Instagram handle. “He’ll be the first black Bachelor, and f---, I’m excited!”

“Well, Juliet,” Lindsay said, laughing. “I wish I could emulate your sentiment.”

Lindsay, who co-hosts the ABC show’s official podcast, has been critical of the franchise’s “embarrassing” absence of diversity on and off camera, and has called out contestants’ racist behavior. She explained that, yes, it’s “lovely” that producers finally cast a black man as the lead after 18 years, but was cautious about celebrating as if all problems were solved. If anything, Lindsay said, the move was the “bare minimum” and “the easiest thing” to do. It seemed like a knee-jerk response to the national reckoning over racial injustice.

“It doesn’t seem meaningful or heartfelt or that you’re hearing what we’re screaming for or fighting for,” Lindsay continued, as she and Litman discussed James’s rushed rollout on “Good Morning America” last Friday. “The whole point of calling them out was to say, ‘We don’t feel valued, we don’t feel heard, we don’t feel included.’ And you’re saying, ‘Here’s a black person to step into this role.’ It’s great to see it. Love to see it. But it doesn’t make me feel as if you’re really taking into consideration what it is we say when I say systemic racism. The internal, embedded, deep-rooted issues in this franchise where it needs to change structurally. What are you going to do with that?”

In an interview with Variety last week, ABC programming executive Robert Mills acknowledged that the show needs many more improvements. “Certainly no one is blind to what is happening in the world, so hopefully this announcement serves as a bit of optimism during a time that we can really use this. But I don’t want this to look like we’re patting ourselves on the back or taking a victory lap,” he said. “We don’t want this, in any way, to seem like a cure-all and seem like, ‘Hey! Look what we did here!’ We know this is a few grains of sand in a very big hourglass. It’s taken a while to get where we are and we will continue to go further, and I acknowledge it may not be enough.”

Calls for more diversity on “The Bachelor,” which averages about 8 million viewers a week, have been prevalent for years, and gained even more traction in the fall after producers chose Peter Weber over Mike Johnson, whom many viewers thought would be the first black Bachelor. Over the years, viewers voiced concerns that the show never cast a nonwhite lead, even as producers insisted they were trying to find more diverse lineups. In 2012, two African American men who auditioned for the series filed a racial discrimination class-action lawsuit against the show because, as their attorney told NPR, “If they were genuine for trying to find people of color entering their second decade, they would have found a person.”

The following year, the network announced that Juan Pablo Galavis, an American-born Venezuelan soccer player, would headline “The Bachelor.” Lindsay placed third on Nick Viall’s season in 2017, and then starred as “The Bachelorette” right after.

Still, Lindsay’s season had issues: She called out producers for showcasing her as “an angry black female” at the end of her season, as they focused the finale on her breakup with the runner-up, Peter Kraus, rather than her engagement to the winner, Bryan Abasolo. Plus, one of her suitors was Lee Garrett, who not only had racist tweets, but labeled a black contestant “aggressive” and accused him of playing “the race card.” The “Bachelorette: Men Tell All” reunion episode mostly focused on contestants repeatedly explaining to Garrett why what he did was problematic, until he apologized.

The series’s issues with race have boiled over off-screen, too. Last month, former “Bachelorette” star Hannah Brown said the n-word on Instagram while she was singing along to DaBaby’s “Rockstar,” only to laugh it off and then deny she said the slur. She followed up with a much more serious apology.

And Garrett Yrigoyen, who won Becca Kufrin’s season, upset many in Bachelor Nation last week by posting almost nothing about Black Lives Matter, but writing a long Instagram caption in defense of police, alongside a black square with a blue line through it. Yrigoyen had already come under fire during Kufrin’s season for “liking” past Instagram posts that included mocking transgender people and jokes about throwing an immigrant child over the border.

This all led to a painful, raw conversation between Kufrin and Lindsay on “Bachelor Happy Hour,” the show’s official podcast that they host together, as Lindsay said she was tired of the show’s producers and executives not speaking out about these incidents, leaving her to do all the emotional heavy lifting for the franchise — such as this winter on “The Bachelor: Women Tell All,” when she appeared on the episode to call out viewers for racist tweets.

“I am tired of having to be the black person to speak out against things that are done to black people. It should be the franchise,” Lindsay said. “They are silent when they should be standing up for your black contestants, and it makes it seem as though you are complicit with this behavior.”

In the interview with Variety, Mills agreed that Lindsay “is the one that everybody goes to for comment and she is the one teaching everyone,” and he wants that to change. “We’re so lucky to have her. But I don’t think it’s fair that the burden has been solely on her shoulders, and we’re going to do everything to make sure that it doesn’t stay that way,” he said.

As for James, when GMA anchors asked him last week if his casting was “too little, too late,” he responded, “I don’t think it’s ever the wrong time to do the right thing.” He also acknowledged that while “The Bachelor” is certainly a guilty pleasure, representation on TV, especially in front of as many viewers as “The Bachelor” reaches, is still an important aspect of our culture.

“I think a lot of people are in that situation where they’re uncomfortable dating outside their race,” he said. “It’s a conversation starter for a lot of people. And hopefully again it paves the way for a lot of diverse love stories, because those are beautiful stories.”

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