"Bachelor" plaintiffs

Christopher Johnson (left) and Nathaniel Claybrooks (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Twenty-three seasons’ worth of shows, and not once has there been a Bachelor or Bachelorette of color on ABC’s The Bachelor or The Bachelorette.  Sound like grounds for a lawsuit?  According to Deadline.com:

Football players Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson filed a class-action lawsuit today in federal court in Nashville against The Bachelor and The Bachelorette for racial discrimination. According to the suit (read it here exclusively), “over the course of 23 seasons, not one time has the show’s eclectic mix ever included a Bachelor or Bachelorette who is a person of color.” Seeking unstated damages and fees, the 24-page filing also asks the court “that an injunction be issued requiring Defendants to consider persons of color as finalists for the role of the Bachelor and the Bachelorette.” Bachelor executive producer and Bachelorette creator Michael Fleiss, ABC, Warner Horizon Television, Next Entertainment, and NZK Productions are all named as defendants. The Bachelor has been on the air since 2002, The Bachelorette has been on since 2003.

Claybrooks and Johnson, both black, say they unsuccessfully auditioned for The Bachelor. “Mr. Claybrooks’ interview lasted for a much shorter time than the interviews with white applicants who went before him,” the suit alleges. “Mr. Claybrooks felt that he was being rushed through the process and was not given the same opportunity as his white counterparts.” The suit says Claybrooks, who auditioned at Nashville’s Indigo Hotel in 2011, never heard back from Bachelor producers.

Jozen Cummings of The Root (owned by the Washington Post Co., the site celebrates their being a “leading online source of news and commentary from an African-American perspective”) responds with a “who cares” dismissal of the suit, saying it “has to be one of the most frivolous race-based lawsuits in the history of law,” and adding

I hope that Claybrooks or Johnson don’t think they’re about to get a march started in their favor over this. Everyone knows that the reason The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have been on so long is that they stick to the same formula, right down to the color of people they cast. Everyone also knows that as popular as those series are, they are the definition of junk TV.

To Cummings’s credit, the rest of the article calls out other examples of dubiously anti-diverse programming.  But why belittle an effort to force the industry to address unfair practices?  Why try to label the suit as frivolous, or sour grapes?  Yes, one of the plaintiffs felt he was being “rushed through the [audition] process,” which may on the surface sound petty.  But when executives favor white faces over all others, no matter their reasoning, no matter their excuses, no matter whether you think the show in question is silly or not, people of color are getting the short end of the stick.  That’s not what America is supposed to be about in 2012.

Sugey Palomares of latina.com delves deeper into what this discrimination may stem from:

In other words, there may be a racial inclusion and exclusion paradigms taking place based on the idea that viewers will get turned off by interracial dating – specifically when a person of color is in the position of power. Let’s be clear, the show has featured a rainbow of ethnicities when it comes to their pool of contestants, including Latinos, African Americans, and Asians. This signifies that the issue runs deeper than intermixing being considered a taboo in the U.S.

The notion that people of color can’t stand in the place of authority and hand their red rose to a white contestant if they choose to, mirrors the post-colonial mentality that interracial dating is acceptable as long as the white person is the initiator (or the aggressor during slavery).

Whether they win the lawsuit or not, the widespread media attention has already succeeded at giving a voice to the silent discrimination that has been going on since the show’s conception. Let’s challenge these reality shows and really think about what kind of ‘reality’ it forms about our community and our people.

If we really look at television in this lens, we will be hitting the off button a lot more, which could make some of these networks rethink their programming.

Lawsuits get a bad rap in this country, thanks in large part — according to the invaluable new documentary Hot Coffee (about the McDonald’s scalding-hot-coffee incident, subsequent lawsuit, and corporate efforts to belittle that suit) — to the myths being spread to try to chop away at ordinary people’s rights to stand up to big corporations in court.

The myths and smears about the value of these kinds of lawsuits have taken deep root in our society.  Listen to the whining on the usually savvy The Atlantic‘s The Atlantic Wire blog — no right-wingers, they, and yet they’re buying into this right-wing, tort-reform meme — in a post titled, “Please drop The Bachelor Discrimination Lawsuit”:

Like, is that where we are right now, suing reality shows because they won’t cast us? Sue a job that doesn’t hire you because you’re black, that’s a real offense for sure. But a reality show isn’t a job exactly, is it? Specifically, The Bachelor is not a job. Being The Bachelor is not employment from which one can be unfairly discriminated. Yes, you receive money and it may lead to future employment as, say, a cast member on Bachelor Pad, but it is not a livelihood that should be legally fair and inclusive. If ABC et .al. are deliberately not casting a black Bachelor or a Latina Bachelorette in favor of the blond(e) zombies they’ve had on so far, then that is bad and they are jerks. But sued? By two random people? For discrimination? That makes no sense!

The writer, Richard Lawson, goes on (rightly, we think, though that’s beside the point for the moment) to tar the show as misogynistic, so he’s coming at the issue from a similar POV to that of Cummings of The Root … saying in effect that since the show sucks so bad and society’s got bigger problems, hey, we should let this whole racist casting thing slide.

This kind of self-defeatism is a mistake.  This is no small infraction: People of color may have missed an opportunity to star on a major network television show based on their ethnicity.  Justice should be pursued by any effective means available.

That’s what the courtroom is for.  If this lawsuit turns out to be legally frivolous, the American justice system should and will slap it down, not the blogosphere.

When there’s injustice, though; when there’s harm caused by unfair practices; when those in power won’t respond to repeated pleas that they do the right thing, be glad the wronged have the right to a day in court.  Let’s celebrate Claybrooks and Johnson’s move to bring suit, not trash it.

Twenty-three seasons and not a single person of color in the leading roles, not once.  Break off a piece of that, everyone, and chew on it a while.  Does it really pass the taste test?

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