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Matt James, first Black 'Bachelor,' says racism controversy is 'devastating'

The popular reality series and its host, Chris Harrison, have been criticized in recent weeks over diversity failures after a contestant scandal.
Matt James and Chris Harrison on \"The Bachelor\" on ABC.
Matt James and Chris Harrison on "The Bachelor" on ABC.Craig Sjodin / ABC

Matt James, the first Black man to lead ABC's "The Bachelor" franchise, spoke out Monday about the series' failures on diversity and the widespread criticism of host Chris Harrison in recent weeks.

James, who is leading the show's 25th season, said a recent incident involving photos of a female contestant at an antebellum plantation-themed fraternity formal in 2018 and Harrison's defense of her are a "clear reflection of a much larger issue that the Bachelor franchise has fallen short on addressing adequately for years."

In a statement posted on social media, James, 29, said that even though there are still a few episodes left to air this season, it was important for him address the situation.

"The reality is I'm still learning about these situations in real time, and it has been devastating and heartbreaking to put it bluntly," James said.

James said that he hoped the "inflection point" brings true institutional change for the ABC series.

"This moment has sparked critical conversation and reporting, raised important questions, and resulted in inspiring displays of solidarity from The Bachelor nation," James said. "It has also pushed me to reevaluate and process what my experience on The Bachelor represents, not just for me, but for all of the contestants of color, especially the Black contestants of this season and seasons past, and for you, the viewers at home."

Photos of contestant Rachael Kirkconnell resurfaced in recent weeks at the plantation-themed party in 2018, as well as allegations that she had "liked" photos that included Confederate flags on social media.

Kirkconnell, a Georgia native, has apologized, and she told "Bachelor" fans that she was ashamed of her lack of education and understanding of issues of race.

"At one point, I didn't recognize how offensive and racist my actions were, but that doesn't excuse them," she said. "My age or when it happened does not excuse anything. They are not acceptable or okay in any sense. I was ignorant, but my ignorance was racist."

Harrison, who has hosted the show since it began in 2002, defended Kirkconnell in an interview on "Extra" with former "Bachelorette" Rachel Lindsay, the first Black woman to lead the show. Harrison argued that criticism of Kirkconnell might be unfair, even as Lindsay told him that the photos of the party were "not a good look."

"Well, Rachel, is it a good look in 2018? Or is it not a good look in 2021?" Harrison argued. "Because there's a big difference."

Many fans were outraged at Harrison's response, which they said seemed to excuse racism with criticisms of "cancel culture," in spite of Lindsay's attempts to explain that antebellum-themed parties were inexcusable in 2018.

Harrison has issued two apologies and said he would step down from the show's reunion, "After the Final Rose."

In his first acknowledgment of the criticism, Harrison apologized to fans and to Lindsay for having failed to listen to what she was saying. He told fans that he would always "own a mistake."

"What I now realize I have done is cause harm by wrongly speaking in a manner that perpetuates racism, and for that, I am deeply sorry," Harrison initially said.

He issued a second statement three days later as criticism continued and questions arose about whether he was the best person to host the show. Harrison announced that he would not be involved in filming the reunion special.

"The historic season of The Bachelor should not be marred or overshadowed by my mistakes or diminished by my actions. To that end, I have consulted with Warner Bros. and ABC and will be stepping aside for a period of time and will not join for the After the Final Rose special," Harrison said. "I am dedicated to getting educated on a more profound and productive level than ever before."

CORRECTION (Feb. 24, 2021, 7:10 p.m. ET): A headline on a previous version of this article misspelled the first name of the host of "The Bachelor." He is Chris Harrison, not Chis.