In first season with Black ‘Bachelor,’ controversy explodes following Instagram post

Heartthrob Matt James said he hoped to help the show move forward, but the progress didn’t last. Host Chris Harrison defended a contestant after photos of her at an Antebellum-themed party emerged.
7:35 | 02/24/21

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Transcript for In first season with Black ‘Bachelor,’ controversy explodes following Instagram post
The juggernaut "Bachelor" franchise under fire from an unlikely source. Matt James. Reporter: Its own star. Matt James, the first black bachelor, saying the franchise has fallen short on the issue of race. After the show's host, Chris Harrison, seemed to defend racist behavior. We have to be so careful when we start labeling people. It's just as bad as what that person did. Reporter: The Matt James announcement a groundbreaking reveal. 25 seasons in the making. The 29-year-old commercial real estate executive a step forward for the show, where season after season after season after season showcased white bachelors and mostly white potential paramours. We spoke to Matt just before the season kicked off. Why do you think it took so You know what, I don't know. I can't speak on what took place before I got there. But I was honored to be the first, and hopefully the first of many. Reporter: In our January interview, Matt said he hoped to represent progress. I'm hoping that, as the years go on and there's another black bachelor, Asian bachelor, a person of color bachelor, it's "That person's a great bachelor." Reporter: But that progress suffered a setback when these 3-year-old photos of contestant Rachel cook knell at an old south ante bell antebellum themed party complete with costumes went viral. Offensive, insensitive, a month profoundly racist act, making a mockery of one of the most painful, horrific moments in American history that is American slavely. Reporter: Chris bachelor came to her defense in an interview with Rachel Lindsay, the first-ever bachelorette. It's not a good look. Rachel, is it a good look in 2018 or not a good look in 2021? It's not a good look ever because she's celebrating the old south. If I went T that party what would I represent at that party? My guess, these girls dressed up, went to a party, had a great time, they were 18 years old. Does that make it okay? I don't know, you tell me. Reporter: The fallout for Harrison, who like the show has become an institution, was swift. Social media exploding in outrage and defense. Former contestants also voicing their disappointment. I think he for sure needs to do more than put out a statement. I am really, really disappointed. Reporter: Another bachelor alum calling on Harrison to step down. Let me speak direct. Should that individual be removed from the "Bachelor" franchise? I think it's time for that. Chris Harrison made it sound as though the excuse was, she was so young, she was just in college. What do you make of that defense? This wasn't eons ago, 36 months ago. Plenty of kids go to college and find a way not to be racist. Reporter: Harrison apologized writing on Instagram, by excusing historical racism, I defended it. I am ashamed over how uninformed I was. I was so wrong. And he announced that he's stepping aside from the franchise for a period of time. Last night, Matt James releasing his own statement on Instagram saying, it has been devastating and heart breaking to put it bluntly. Chris' failure to receive and understand the emotional labor that my friend Rachel Lindsay was taking on by graciously and patiently explaining the racist history of the antebellum south was troubling and painful to watch. It was the clear reflection of a much larger issue that the "Bachelor" franchise has fallen short on addressing adequately for years. As for Kurt knell, she's gotten cozy with the bachelor, James taking her shopping, and on a horse-drawn carriage ride, making it through enough rose ceremonies to be among the final three. Will you accept this rose? Yes. Thank you. Reporter: She's apologized for both the antebellum party photos and for liking photos with the confederate flag. "I'm sure to say I was wrong, I didn't recognize how offensive and racist my actions were, but that doesn't excuse me, I was ignorant but my ignorance was racist." The "Bachelor" franchise has long faced criticism for lack of diversity among its leads and contestants, even faced a class-action lawsuit that claimed the show discriminates against people of color. The case was eventually dismissed. I think what's hard is we are all linked and attached to this franchise. And you don't want to be attached to something that seems to be so problematic when there seems to be so much that needs to still be done. Alex, you ready? Ready as I'll ever been. Reporter: The "Bachelor" franchise has been a pop culture phenomenon since it debuted in 2002. "The bachelorette" launched the following year. With Harrison there every step of the year. We got the camera, two dozen people behind the cameras -- Reporter: I visited a set in 2015. This is breath taking. What does it say on about us that it has such longevity? There's one currency that is always true, that is love and companionship. Reporter: Before Harrison stepped aside I asked about the show's lack of diversity. What does it say about our culture? Wow, that's a big question. I don't know what that says. I don't know. I'm a big fan of, it's never too late to do the right thing. And when that is done, that is good. What did you make of the fact that 24 seasons of "The bachelor" featured a largely white cast? "The bachelor" is a symbol of the possibilities of love in this country, the possibilities and promise of love in America. When they're all white, it sends a signal of, who deserves to be desired? Who deserves to be sought after? Who deserves to be married? And that kind of narrative is deeply dangerous when there's simply not enough black people on there. Rachel, will you accept this sfloes. I will. Reporter: Harrison told us optimistically in January, hi hopes viewers look past re and see Matt James as just another tall, handsome, eligible bachelor. Yes, he is the first black bachelor. And I'm excited to get to the point of the season where nobody cares, it's just Matt with some drama and some tears and we just forget the optics of it and we're just living our lives. That's when you know we've actually taken a big step. Do you think that added an extra level of pressure to you, to be the first black bachelor? The more you focus on how you were raised, what's important to you, and these women with respect, everything else falls into line. Reporter: That diverse representation reflects a new racial consciousness and a changing America, where interracial romance is no longer taboo. What do you think that says about sort of us seeing on our screens, interracial dating normalized? That's where I think we can do our part is that we just show that, it's not only okay, it's just fine. It's just normal. Let's move on with our lives. This couple fell in love, good on them. There's much bigger fish to fry. When we get to the point that things don't matter, and I mean that in a good way, I think we've taken a big step.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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