Hacking Traditional College Debate's White-Privilege Problem

Members of the Wiley College debate team present arguments during a practice session. (Donna McWilliam/AP Photo)

It used to be that if you went to a college-level debate tournament, the students you’d see would be bookish future lawyers from elite universities, most of them white. In matching navy blazers, they’d recite academic arguments for and against various government policies. It was tame, predictable, and, frankly, boring.

No more.

These days, an increasingly diverse group of participants has transformed debate competitions, mounting challenges to traditional form and content by incorporating personal experience, performance, and radical politics. These “alternative-style” debaters have achieved success, too, taking top honors at national collegiate tournaments over the past few years.

But this transformation has also sparked a difficult, often painful controversy for a community that prides itself on handling volatile topics.  

On March 24, 2014 at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Championships at Indiana University, two Towson University students, Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, became the first African-American women to win a national college debate tournament, for which the resolution asked whether the U.S. president’s war powers should be restricted. Rather than address the resolution straight on, Ruffin and Johnson, along with other teams of African-Americans, attacked its premise. The more pressing issue, they argued, is how the U.S. government is at war with poor black communities.

In the final round, Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis. Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled. His partner Campbell, who won the top speaker award at the National Debate Tournament two weeks later, had been unfairly targeted by the police at the debate venue just days before, and cited this experience as evidence for his case against the government’s treatment of poor African-Americans.

This year wasn't the first time this had happened. In the 2013 championship, two men from Emporia State University, Ryan Walsh and Elijah Smith, employed a similar style and became the first African-Americans to win two national debate tournaments. Many of their arguments, based on personal memoir and rap music, completely ignored the stated resolution, and instead asserted that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students.

Tournament participants from all backgrounds say they have found some of these debate strategies offensive. Even so, the new style has received mainstream acceptance, sympathy, and awards.

Joe Leeson Schatz, Director of Speech and Debate at Binghamton University, is encouraged by the changes in debate style and community. “Finally, there’s a recognition in the academic space that the way argument has taken place in the past privileges certain types of people over others,” he said. “Arguments don’t necessarily have to be backed up by professors or written papers. They can come from lived experience.” 

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But other teams who have prepared for a traditional policy debate are frustrated when they encounter a meta-debate, or an alternative stylistic approach in competition. These teams say that the pedagogical goals of policy debate are not being met—and are even being undermined. Aaron Hardy, who coaches debate at Northwestern University, is concerned about where the field is headed. “We end up … with a large percentage of debates being devoted to arguing about the rules, rather than anything substantive,” he wrote on a CEDA message board last fall.

Critics of the new approach allege that students don’t necessarily have to develop high-level research skills or marshal evidence from published scholarship. They also might not need to have the intellectual acuity required for arguing both sides of a resolution. These skills—together with a non-confrontational presentation style—are considered crucial for success in fields like law and business.

Hardy and others are also disappointed with what they perceive as a lack of civility and decorum at recent competitions, and believe that the alternative-style debaters have contributed to this environment. “Judges have been very angry, coaches have screamed and yelled. People have given profanity-laced tirades, thrown furniture, and both sides of the ideological divide have used racial slurs,” he said.

To counter this trend, Hardy and his allies want to create a “policy only” space in which traditional standards for debate will be enforced. However, this is nearly impossible to do within the two major debate associations, CEDA and the National Debate Tournament (NDT), as they are governed by participants and have few conduct enforcement mechanisms. For instance, while CEDA and NDT’s institutional anti-harassment policy would normally prohibit the term “nigga” as it was used at the recent Indiana University tournament finals, none of the judges penalized the competitors that used it. In fact, those debaters took home prizes.

14 schools expressed interest in sending debaters to Hardy’s proposed alternative tournament, scheduled to occur last month. But after word got out that a group of mostly white teams from elite universities were trying to form their own league, Hardy and his supporters were widely attacked on Facebook and other online forums. Ultimately the competition didn’t happen, purportedly because of logistical issues with the hotel venue. Nonetheless, Hardy wrote in an email that a “toxic climate” has precluded even “strong supporters of ‘policy debate’ from “publicly attach[ing] their name to anything that might get them called racist or worse.”

Korey Johnson, the reigning CEDA champion from Towson University, was one of the students who took offense  the alternative tournament. “Segregating debate is a bad move,” she said.*  “With the increase in minority participation came a range of different types of argument and perspectives, not just from the people who are in debate, but the kind of scholarship we bring in.” Her debate partner Ameena Ruffin agreed: “For them to tell us that we can’t bring our personal experience, it would literally be impossible. Not just for black people—it is true of everyone. We are always biased by who we are in any argument.”

Liberal law professors have been making this point for decades. “Various procedures—regardless of whether we're talking about debate formats or law—have the ability to hide the subjective experiences that shape these seemingly ‘objective’ and ‘rational’ rules,” said UC Hastings Law School professor Osagie Obasogie, who teaches critical race theory. “This is the power of racial subordination: making the viewpoint of the dominant group seem like the only true reality.”

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Hardy disagrees. “Having minimal rules is not something that reflects a middle-class white bias,” he said. “I think it is wildly reductionist to say that black people can’t understand debate unless there is rap in it—it sells short their potential.” He said he is committed to increasing economic and racial diversity in debate and has set up a nonprofit organization to fundraise for minority scholarships.

According to Joe Leeson Schatz, one of the unstated reasons for trying to set up policy-only debates is that once-dominant debate teams from colleges like Harvard and Northwestern are no longer winning the national competitions. “It is now much easier for smaller programs to be successful,” he said. “You don’t have to be from a high budget program; all you need to win is just a couple of smart students.” Schatz believes that the changes in college debate are widening the playing field and attracting more students from all backgrounds.

Paul Mabrey, a communications lecturer at James Madison University and CEDA vice president, is organizing a conference for this coming June that will address the college debate diversity problem. “The debate community is broken,” he declared, “but there is nothing wrong with that. We talk about a post-racial America, but we shouldn’t elide our real differences, we should talk about how to work across and work with these differences.”

One thing is clear: In a community accustomed to hashing out every possible argument, this particular debate will continue. The uncontested benefit of the debate format is that everyone receives equal time to speak, something that drew many minority students to debate in the first place, said Korey Johnson. “No matter how people feel about my argument, they have to listen to me for all of my speeches, everything I have to say, they can’t make me stop speaking,” she said.

 


* An earlier version of this post misquoted Korey Johnson as saying "separating" rather than "segregating." We regret the error.

Jessica Carew Kraft is a journalist based in San Francisco.


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