Is ‘American Idol’ Racist?

A lawsuit claims series producers treated black contestants unjustly. Kevin Fallon looks at the evidence.

As American Idol has aged, it’s been called many unflattering things. Boring. Irrelevant. Past its prime. But racist?

That last claim comes courtesy of a lawsuit that has been filed by 10 of the show’s past contestants. The group claims they were unjustly kicked off the show because of their race, accusing producers of orchestrating a “cruel and inhumane” scheme to juice ratings by allegedly digging up their criminal histories after they were accepted on the show in order to embarrass them in TV segments. According to their lawyer, James H. Freeman, they were treated unfairly by the producers. Freeman also says their arrest histories were obtained illegally, and the practice was used to find dirt only on black singers. None of the contestants, Freeman says, were actually convicted of the charges for which they arrested.

In the show’s 12 seasons, only 10 contestants have been disqualified publicly, Freeman says (though just off the top of my head I can think of several instances in which white contestants were kicked off for having previous recording contracts), and they are all black. Ergo: Idol is racist.

The 10 contestants—Season 2’s Corey Clark, Jaered Andrews, and Jacob John Smalley; Season 3’s Donnie Williams; Season 5’s Terrell Brittenum and Derrell Brittenum; Season 6’s Thomas Daniels and Akron Watson; Season 8’s Ju’not Joyner; and Season 9’s Chris Golightly—are seeking $25 million each in damages.

Yet four of the show’s winners are black, including Candice Glover, who won the most recent cycle. And 41 of the show’s 143 finalists have been black, just shy of 30 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13.1 percent of the U.S. population is black. By those numbers, that means that American Idol is not racist by double—and that’s without factoring in the dozens of Hispanic and Asian contestants the show has had. Musical melting pot!

As for the claim that black contestants were treated unjustly, we’ll let other Idol finalists speak to that one.

“It is shocking to see such allegations,” Season 6 finalist Melinda Doolittle said when reports of the lawsuit surfaced in January. “In my experience on the show, the Idol team strives to champion everyone, regardless of race.” When contacted for comment again Thursday, Doolittle’s publicist said that the statement is “duly applicable” now as well.

Vonzell Solomon, who finished in third place on Season 4, echoed Doolittle’s sentiments, saying, “I didn’t experience any of that [racial discrimination].” While Solomon and Doolittle, both of whom are black, have more authority on the matter, two white finalists also defended the show. “I don’t know why they are biting the hand that fed them,” Season 10 finalist Casey Abrams said. “Those guys beat thousands of people who wanted to be on TV. Idol is picky, but I’m not sure about racist.”

Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks agreed. “American Idol is for everyone. All walks of life go through the show. Not once did I see the show discriminate toward anyone. It’s all about the votes.”

As for the 10 contestants’ outrage over the fact that their run-ins with the law got them kicked off the show, Doolittle and Solomon said they believe it was fair that they were booted from the show. “Each contestant is explicitly told that the withholding of information that may compromise the show or artist can and will result in immediate disqualification,” Doolittle said. “All of our contracts were clear about how the background checks worked and that we could be disqualified if we lied about our past,” Solomon confirmed.

In other words, it’s not like Idol burned these guys.

This isn’t the first time Idol’s been called racist. Back in 2004, the accusation was lobbed by none other than Elton John after Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino, and LaToya London were in the bottom three one week and Hudson was voted off the show, finishing in a meager seventh place. “They have great voices,” John said. “The fact that they’re constantly in the bottom three—and I don’t want to set myself up here—but I find it incredibly racist.”

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Perhaps John was being a wee histrionic with his claim. Sure, Hudson getting voted off so early was egregious. But after she left, there were three black, one Hawaiian, and two white contestants remaining in the competition. And one of the black contestants, Fantasia Barrino, won—making it the second consecutive Idol season to crown a black winner (after Ruben Studdard the year before).

And I don’t want to call any knighted legendary pop icons out or anything, but did no one inform John that it’s the American public, not the American Idol producers, who determine which contestants land in the bottom three each week. Of course, this is the American public that crowned five consecutive young white males their American Idol, before Candice Glover broke that streak. Uh-oh—guys, you’re suing the wrong people. It’s not American Idol that’s racist. It’s AMERICA!

And, since these guys are launching a lawsuit they hope will pay out at least $250 million, let’s go ahead and take a look at some of those arrest histories that got them booted from Idol. Jaered Andrews surrendered to police in 2003 on a warrant charging him with the assault of Thomas Blakely, who was found dead on a sidewalk outside of a bar. Thomas Daniels was convicted of DUI and arrested a year later on hit-and-run charges. The Brittenum twins were charged with identity fraud, theft by deception, and forgery.

Is it any wonder that, even if as Freeman says they weren’t convicted, a nationally broadcast TV series that is investing millions of dollars in discovering a person with the personality, talent, and moral compass to be the next great pop star would maybe decide that they didn’t want these men in the running for that position? P.S. the American Idol background check form includes the question “Have you ever been arrested?” (which Freeman argues in the lawsuit violates California employment law), but can these booted contestants really claim to be outraged if they lied on the form and were subsequently caught doing so?

Back, in January, Nigel Lythgoe, former executive producer of the show, said he was “shocked” by the charges, saying, “We treat everyone the same no matter the race, religion, or sex. I think we’ve always had a fantastic share of talent from contestants both black and white. I don’t think I’ve ever seen racism at the show.”

As someone who will now sheepishly admit that he has, in fact, seen every episode of American Idol—and don’t you dare calculate how much time of my life that amounts to—I can unequivocally agree with Lythgoe. I haven’t seen any, either.