Hacking Traditional College Debate's WhitePrivilege Problem

Minority participants aren't just debating resolutions—they're challenging the
terms of the debate itself.

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

JESSICA CAREW KRAFT
APR 16, 2014

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EDUCATION

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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,

2014 at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Championships at Indiana University. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal. Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson. 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. His partner Campbell. government is at war with poor black communities. two Towson University students. is how the U. But this transformation has also sparked a difficult. Over four hours. too. mounting challenges to traditional form and content by incorporating personal experience.   On March 24. had been unfairly targeted by the police at the . they argued. In the final round. president’s war powers should be restricted. Rather than address the resolution straight on.predictable. and. boring. No more. Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma. along with other teams of African-Americans. Ruffin and Johnson. and radical politics.S. “Fuck the time!” he yelled. who won the top speaker award at the National Debate Tournament two weeks later. These “alternative-style” debaters have achieved success. frankly. the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor.S. performance. The more pressing issue. for which the resolution asked whether the U. became the first African-American women to win a national college debate tournament. attacked its premise. These days. taking top honors at national collegiate tournaments over the past few years. often painful controversy for a community that prides itself on handling volatile topics. two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis. an increasingly diverse group of participants has transformed debate competitions.

is concerned about .”  But other teams who have prepared for a traditional policy debate are frustrated when they encounter a meta-debate. and instead asserted that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight. the new style has received mainstream acceptance. Even so.” he said. who coaches debate at Northwestern University. and awards. white. They can come from lived experience. employed a similar style and became the first African-Americans to win two national debate tournaments. “Finally. sympathy. and cited this experience as evidence for his case against the government’s treatment of poor African-Americans. completely ignored the stated resolution. middle-class students. is encouraged by the changes in debate style and community. based on personal memoir and rap music. two men from Emporia State University. RELATED STORY When Minority Students Attend Elite Private Schools This year wasn't the first time this had happened. These teams say that the pedagogical goals of policy debate are not being met—and are even being undermined. Joe Leeson Schatz. “Arguments don’t necessarily have to be backed up by professors or written papers. Tournament participants from all backgrounds say they have found some of these debate strategies offensive. 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.debate venue just days before. Director of Speech and Debate at Binghamton University. Many of their arguments. Ryan Walsh and Elijah Smith. Aaron Hardy. In the 2013 championship. or an alternative stylistic approach in competition.

People have given profanity-laced tirades. and both sides of the ideological divide have used racial slurs. 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. Critics of the new approach allege that students don’t necessarily have to develop high-level research skills or marshal evidence from published scholarship. thrown furniture. Hardy and others are also disappointed with what they perceive as a lack of civility and decorum at recent competitions. rather than anything substantive. this is nearly impossible to do within the two major debate associations.” he said. and believe that the alternativestyle debaters have contributed to this environment. 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 . “Judges have been very angry. Hardy and his allies want to create a “policy only” space in which traditional standards for debate will be enforced. For instance. as they are governed by participants and have few conduct enforcement mechanisms.” he wrote on a CEDA message board last fall. those debaters took home prizes. 14 schools expressed interest in sending debaters to Hardy’s proposed alternative tournament. These skills—together with a nonconfrontational presentation style—are considered crucial for success in fields like law and business. scheduled to occur last month. “We end up … with a large percentage of debates being devoted to arguing about the rules. However.where the field is headed. In fact. They also might not need to have the intellectual acuity required for arguing both sides of a resolution. none of the judges penalized the competitors that used it. CEDA and the National Debate Tournament (NDT). coaches have screamed and yelled. To counter this trend.

" Korey Johnson. who teaches critical race theory. but the kind of scholarship we bring in. “Segregating debate is a bad move. was one of the students who took offense  the alternative tournament. “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. Not just for black people—it is true of everyone. “This is the power of racial subordination: making the viewpoint of the dominant group seem like the only true reality. “Having minimal rules is not something that reflects a middle-class white bias.” "The debate community is broken. purportedly because of logistical issues with the hotel venue.” he said. 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.” Hardy disagrees. but there is nothing wrong with that.*  “With the increase in minority participation came a range of different types of argument and perspectives.Facebook and other online forums. “I think it is wildly reductionist to say that black people can’t understand debate unless there is rap in it—it sells short . Ultimately the competition didn’t happen. not just from the people who are in debate.” Her debate partner Ameena Ruffin agreed: “For them to tell us that we can’t bring our personal experience. the reigning CEDA champion from Towson University. it would literally be impossible. We are always biased by who we are in any argument.” she said.” Liberal law professors have been making this point for decades.” said UC Hastings Law School professor Osagie Obasogie.

this particular debate will continue." We . The uncontested benefit of the debate format is that everyone receives equal time to speak. is organizing a conference for this coming June that will address the college debate diversity problem. we should talk about how to work across and work with these differences.” 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.” Schatz believes that the changes in college debate are widening the playing field and attracting more students from all backgrounds. they have to listen to me for all of my speeches. “You don’t have to be from a high budget program.” he said. said Korey Johnson. “but there is nothing wrong with that.” One thing is clear: In a community accustomed to hashing out every possible argument.their potential. a communications lecturer at James Madison University and CEDA vice president. According to Joe Leeson Schatz. “No matter how people feel about my argument. but we shouldn’t elide our real differences. We talk about a post-racial America.” she said. 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. Paul Mabrey. “It is now much easier for smaller programs to be successful. something that drew many minority students to debate in the first place. “The debate community is broken. all you need to win is just a couple of smart students.   * An earlier version of this post misquoted Korey Johnson as saying "separating" rather than "segregating.” he declared. everything I have to say. they can’t make me stop speaking.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR JESSICA CAREW KRAFT is a journalist based in San Francisco.regret the error. .