MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The latest edition of ABC's reality television show, "The Bachelorette," is underway. And this season, former winner Emily Maynard, who did not end up living happily ever after with Brad the bachelor, is back to try to find a husband again. And we don't know who she'll choose, but what we do know is he won't be black.
The sole African-American contestant has already been voted out this season and no black person, in fact, has ever been the featured bachelor or bachelorette since the franchise began in 2002. Now, two African-American men, Nathanial Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson are challenging that in court. They filed a lawsuit alleging that the show, quote, "knowing, intentionally, as a matter of corporate policy, refused to cast people of color in the role of the bachelor and bachelorette."
We wanted to hear more about this complaint so we have called Cyrus Mehri. He is a civil rights attorney. He's representing Mr. Claybrooks and Mr. Johnson and he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
CYRUS MEHRI: Good to be back.
MARTIN: And before we get started, I do want to mention that we reached out to Warner Horizon Television, that's the production company behind the shows. We wanted to ask them if they wanted to participate in this conversation. They responded that, quote, "This complaint is baseless and without merit. The producers have been consistently and publically vocal about seeking diverse candidates for both programs," unquote.
So with that being said, Cyrus Mehri, can you tell us a little bit more about what's the legal basis of this complaint?
CYRUS MEHRI: Sure. Our two clients had gone to a casting call in Nashville last year and now they're bringing a case because they were not put on equal footing to other candidates because of race.
MARTIN: How do you know this?
MEHRI: Well, look at the track record of this show. It's been on for 10 years. They're entering their second decade. They've had 23 seasons. And even though they claim they're looking for people of color, they claim they're looking for Latinos, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, throughout this decade plus, they've not selected a single person of color.
And so we believe that people of color were not given the same opportunity, were not given the same consideration as other candidates.
MARTIN: Do you have some internal documents? Is there any studio executive who's ever been quoted saying this or you just think that the track record speaks for itself, particularly when you compare with other programs like "The Amazing Race" or "Survivor," where people of color have won?
MEHRI: Well, the track record speaks for itself. How do you explain zero? How do you explain zero for 23 when they claim they're looking for people of color? We also have statements from the executive producer Michael Fleiss that seems contemptuous of people of color and people of diverse backgrounds.
MARTIN: Can you give an example?
MEHRI: Sure. The way he talks about is, oh, we don't want to have a couple black chicks just to put them on the air for tokenism. That kind of attitude, really, I think, is a window into who he is, what the program is about. If they were genuine for trying to find people of color entering their second decade, they would have found a person.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about a lawsuit that accuses the reality romance show "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" of racial discrimination in casting. We're speaking with Cyrus Mehri. He is a civil rights attorney. He's representing two would-be African-American bachelors.
Now, why do they want to be on this program? Why do they think this is important?
MEHRI: Well, they actually have been following the show, one of them, Mr. Johnson, has been following the show from the beginning. For them, it's an opportunity to meet people, and they are viable candidates. They have very compelling personalities. They're very eloquent and accomplished and they should be given the same chance as others. But they were knocked out immediately, as soon as they showed up at the casting call.
MARTIN: Now, you can understand why some people might listen to this and their response might be, you know, really? I mean, really? Is this important?
MEHRI: Well, let me tell you, this is very important.
MARTIN: And the very reasons why I think that this is worth asking you this, Cyrus Mehri, for people who are not aware of your track record. You've actually been involved with some of the most important employment discrimination cases that have been brought in recent years, cases involving major corporations like Texaco, for example, in which you have been successful.
So I just think for people who aren't aware of that, it is important to know that you do have a track record in bringing successful employment discrimination cases that have been found to have had merit or have been settled out of court. So tell me again why this matters.
MEHRI: Well, we're very proud of that track record and we're very proud to bring this case because what this case is about is the debilitating impact that a message of exclusion has on our society. I mean, when you exclude people based on color and you're sending a message that white is more beautiful than other people of color, that people of color are not as successful, not as beautiful, not as compelling, that has a debilitating on our society.
It's not that different than the landmark work of Dr. Kenneth Clark behind Brown vs. Board of Education, because that work showed - they had a baby doll study that showed that people were looking at the white dolls for favorably than the black dolls. And this kind of messaging has a debilitating effect on young people.
A show like this which callously presents the same kind of imagery of superiority of white candidates has a terrible effect on our society. So we plan to help turn that around.
MARTIN: I want to play a short clip from one of your clients. This is Nathaniel Claybrooks talking about why he wanted to be on the show. Let's just play it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NATHANIEL CLAYBROOKS: I want to get to know a woman on a one-on-one basis and not just Internet date. And, you know, do things like that like the new generation are doing. I want to really just try to learn them and talk to them on a one-on-one basis.
MARTIN: If that's the case, though, couldn't he do that on his own? I mean, unlike Brown vs. Board of Ed, the premise behind Brown is that education is critical in a society like this and access to an equal education was actually being denied to African-American children on the basis of race. And there really was no other avenue to achieve a public education. You shouldn't have to go and pay to go to a private school to have them have a good education. Can you really make the same argument to Mr. Claybrooks that that's really the only way to meet somebody?
MEHRI: No, I think there's this situation in that respect is different than Brown vs. Board of Education in terms of, you know, whether or not you get something as vital as an education. But what we're talking about here is a chance to compete on equal footing. This case is being brought under historic statute. It was called Section 1981, which is about the formation of contract.
And he had to be able to compete on equal footing as others. But the import of this case is less about whether Mr. Claybrooks and Mr. Johnson gets selected. It's about what kind of imagery are we putting on the air in one of the most popular programs in this country when you're sending the message of exclusion.
MARTIN: What about the argument that ABC and the producers of "The Bachelor" are not in the business of social change and they're not really providing a social good, per se, that this is not important enough really to justify or to have to meet the same standard of a public education or a job for that matter?
MEHRI: I think the networks make certain representations to the FCC in terms of they're trying to be in favor of the public good, but you also have, you know, their responsibility to society at large that, you know, think about what they're impact is of their decisions. And right now, they're taking an approach where they've had a decade, 23 seasons, they say their looking for people of color and they can't find them.
That doesn't hold up. I don't believe your viewers believe that if they really genuinely tried for a decade to find a person of color to serve as a bachelor or bachelorette that they couldn't find somebody. And I think that defense is not holding up.
MARTIN: The final question I have for you, and you may consider this kind of beyond the scope of your representation, but I just have to ask because when this issue has come up before and we've talked about it on the program glancingly, inevitably we get people who are saying these shows are garbage, so why do you want your clients to be on them? Is this fight really worth fighting?
MEHRI: Well, this is one of the most popular reality TV shows in U.S. history. It's part of our social fabric as a country. So there is a lot at stake in terms of America's hearts and minds. And so, yes, this is a very important case.
MARTIN: What's the next step here?
MEHRI: Well, we're waiting to hear their answer to our complaint. We filed it last month. Their answer's due in a week or so and then Judge Trauger, our judge down in the Middle District of Tennessee, is ready to meet with us at some point in the near future.
MARTIN: Cyrus Mehri is a civil rights attorney. He's a partner in the firm Mehri and Skalet and he was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Keep us posted.
MEHRI: It's my pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Just ahead, mental illness was just a way of life for Jessie Close and her son, Calen Pick.
JESSIE CLOSE: You can speak to the person who has a thought disorder and they sound perfectly normal. But what they're saying is incredibly bizarre.
MARTIN: Now, Jessie and Calen are with us for a candid conversation about living and coping with mental illness hoping they can help others. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.