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Ten former “Idol” contestants sue, allege racial bias

"American Idol" Judges

"American Idol" judges for season 12 and host Ryan Seacrest on day one of judges auditions at JAZZ
“American Idol” Judges “American Idol” judges for season 12 and host Ryan Seacrest on day one of judges auditions at JAZZ at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall. Credit: Michael Becker/FOX

Fox’s longtime singing competition “American Idol” is embroiled in a lawsuit brought by 10 African American former contestants who say they were unfairly dismissed from the show because of their race.

Their complaint was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging that “American Idol” producers unlawfully acquired information about contestants’ criminal backgrounds for both Black and white contestants but then used whatever they found solely against Black finalists. If the arrest records of white “Idol” finalists were made public, the suit alleges that they conversely were “championed as models of redemption.”

The suit accuses the producers of using criminal background checks to “systematically disqualify and publicly humiliate” Black “Idol” finalists as a ratings ploy, perpetuating stereotypes along the way. It contends that while there “were three times as many White (or non-Black) contestants featured on ‘American Idol’” since it began in 2002, “there has never been a single White (or non-Black) contestant disqualified” from the series.

Fox and “Idol” production company FremantleMedia have so far declined CNN’s request for comment.

The 10 plaintiffs include Jaered Andrews (season 2), Corey Clark (season 2), Jacob John Smalley (season 2), Donnie Williams (season 3), Terrell and Derrell Brittenum (season 5), Thomas Daniels (season 6), Akron Watson (season 6), Ju’Not Joyner (season 8)and Chris Golightly (season 9).

Each former contestant is seeking $25 million in damages for “economic injuries, lost business opportunities and/or lost earning potential” following their dismissal from “Idol.”

Their attorney, James H. Freeman, said the exit of season 11 contestant Jermaine Jones inspired him to take the case. In 2012, Jones was disqualified from “Idol” for allegedly concealing “multiple crimes and outstanding police warrants,” but Jones isn’t a part of the current lawsuit.

In an interview with CNN, Jones said he had a “really good experience” as a contestant, although he disagrees with the way he was kicked off the show.

“I think that they handled (the situation) the way they wanted to handle the situation. Do I agree with it? Of course not. I would love to have been on the show to be able to compete,” Jones said. “But you know I take the highs and the lows, the good and the bad.”

When he was asked to be a part of the lawsuit, Jones said he declined. “I’m grateful for the whole experience. You know, the good parts, the bad parts — it all made me who I am, and it helped enhance and cultivate me as a person (and) as a musician, as an artist, as a performer. I’m just moving forward.”

During the 12 seasons of “American Idol,” four African American contestants have won: Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Jordin Sparks (who is biracial) and Candice Glover.

CNN’s Nischelle Turner contributed to this report.

Breeanna Hare | CNN