That there is a first Black anything in the year 2021 almost beggars belief—or at least it should. But such is life and reality television that Monday’s episode of The Bachelor was historic not just because it was the second season of the franchise filmed in quarantine but because for the first time in 25 seasons, the leading man is Black. Matt James is an appropriately square-jawed, 29-year-old real estate broker from North Carolina who—like so many male Bachelor cast members—had a short-lived professional football career. James’ casting, announced back in June after a nationwide racial reckoning swept across the nation in the wake of monthslong protests, was long overdue. But it also came as a surprise.
The Bachelor franchise has become a self-sustaining organism, with leads normally plucked from a previous season’s final three or four contestants. While the show has messed with this formula a few times in recent years, the producers haven’t chosen a mostly unknown entity like James to lead the show in at least a decade. James was originally slated to appear as a contestant on Clare Crawley’s season of The Bachelorette. But when filming was delayed by the pandemic, ABC pulled him out to become the next lead of The Bachelor.
James’ expedited promotion came on the heels of Bachelor alums and fans demanding more diversity in the franchise’s casting, which up until last summer had included just one Black lead. Previously, when pressed, producers and executives have always hedged and said they didn’t want to cast a Black Bachelor just for the sake of having one and instead wanted to wait for the “right one” to come along. Underneath that hedging was the implicit fear that the show’s core white audience wouldn’t invest in a Black Bachelor. Yet when the franchise finally did cast a Black lead, they chose James, who has no previous audience buy-in, over other Black fan favorites like Mike Johnson and Eric Bigger.
Both of the historic choices that lead to James’ casting—his racial identity and his being a relative unknown—were subtext underlying Monday night’s premiere. The episode opened with the typical spiel by the lead about how everything up until this point in their life has led them to a reality TV dating show that ends in an engagement. This time, though, James’ intro required a heavier lift than previous leads, since neither the audience nor the contestants knew who he was. All the intro really made clear though was that James is indeed Black, that he does some sort of volunteer work that involves children, and that he probably wouldn’t have been cast as a lead had he actually been on a contestant on the Bachelorette. It is a truth universally acknowledged by fans that, as a rule, the female leads are more charismatic than the male ones. But James so shrinks against the megawatt personalities of the women vying for his attention that his personality has been boiled down to just those two qualities that make him unique. The episode’s conversations returned again and again to James’ status as the first Black Bachelor and to the fact that he was as new to the franchise as each of the contestants.
That’s unfortunate for James, not least because both he and host Chris Harrison are wholly unequipped to deal with the substance of the diversity issues that plague the show. In the longest conversation on race and racism, James tells Harrison that he feels a lot of pressure as the first Black Bachelor because if he picks a person of a certain race, white people and Black people will be mad at him. Harrison validates and assuages this fear by telling James that love is love is love and James should feel free to pick whomever he wants.
That is, of course, true. But James’ fear inadvertently raises the very issues that led to producers having so few choices for their first Black Bachelor. The only conceivable reason people—Black or white—would be mad at James over his final pick would be if she is white. Racists would object to seeing an interracial couple, while Black viewers might be upset at having to once again see contestants that look like them steadily eliminated in a reflection of centuries worth of implicit messaging that Black women are less than. Leaving aside the fact that these two reactions are nowhere near the same in terms of validity, it’s striking that before we even saw James’ interact with any of his contestants, he was subtly managing expectations for the outcome—a move that didn’t go unnoticed by Black fans who have also speculated that James’ mother voted for Trump and that James himself is a stealth Republican.
James already preparing the audience for the likelihood of his choosing a non-Black woman has lasting ramifications for the diversity of the show going forward. Because the upcoming season’s lead is most often picked from the previous season’s final contestants, the racial makeup of that last dating pool has an outsize influence on the future of the show. In the 41 completed seasons of the franchise, only four Black contestants have made it to the final three, all of them very recent. The first was Rachel Lindsay, who would go on to become the first Black Bachelorette. The second, Eric Bigger, competed on Rachel’s season. The third was Tayshia Adams, who competed on the 23rd season of the Bachelor and was brought on to finish out Clare Crawley’s season when the latter chose to get engaged just three weeks in. (Since Crawley didn’t finish out her season, her final pick, Dale Moss, isn’t included in this count.)
In her own season, Adams passed over Ivan Hall, the fourth Black contestant to make it to the final three, for a white contestant that she had already previously eliminated. This, after she and Hall had one of the most poignant conversations in the show’s history on race and policing and mass incarceration. Hall’s elimination speaks to the same ineradicable problem that James’ casting did and his setting of expectations seems to. Even when the lead isn’t white or when the initial deck of contestants is stacked with nonwhite contestants like both James’ and Adams’ seasons were, the outcome—a final tier of mostly white contestants that gets the most screen time, and from which the next seasons’ lead is presumably chosen—stubbornly remains the same.
At this point, that outcome seems nothing less than intentional. The easiest way to change it would be to choose a lead that has an actual demonstrated interest in dating a person of color that goes beyond the initial quotas. It’s striking then that none of the contestants that have appeared on a season led by a Black Bachelorette have been chosen to become the lead themselves, that when the opportunity presented itself at the end of Rachel Lindsay’s season in 2017, ABC instead picked a white Bachelor who hadn’t been on the show since 2012. And by the time the opportunity presented itself again at the end of Adams’ season, James, with his careful disavowal of expectations, had already been chosen.
It’s not clear yet whether James’ season will arrive at that same seemingly preordained (or produced) outcome. I sincerely hope it doesn’t, that his final three reflects the diversity on display that first night. But it seems more than clear at this point that ABC sees little wrong if it doesn’t.