How a ’00s College Debate Team Predicted Today’s Culture Wars

Jay Caspian Kang, full article at New York Times

In the summer of 1987, Ede Warner graduated from Augustana College, where he had spent most of his time on the policy debate circuit, in which he was one of the few Black competitors. He returned to his parents’ funeral home in Gary, Ind., with plans to take over the business. One day, about five years into his career, Warner was embalming the body of a Black teenager in the basement. This was nothing new, but this time something snapped. He went upstairs and told his mother that he was done. Wayne State in Detroit offered him a position as a graduate assistant coach on its debate team. He accepted, with the ambition of recruiting more Black debaters into the field.

Warner’s work began slowly. He helped his students, most of whom were white, write their arguments. Normal competitive debate operates in an abstract, theoretical space: The affirmative team proposes a plan that affirms that year’s resolution, which usually involves some policy decision by the U.S. government. In response to an affirmative arguing in favor of, say, abolishing the death penalty, the negative side might argue that a federal ban on the death penalty would be catastrophic for Democrats in the midterms, which would lead to the Republicans retaking the House and the Senate; once in power, those Republicans would rattle more sabers at China, and before you know it: nuclear war.

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Warner’s first efforts centered these arguments on what he called “Black issues,” like reparations, the criminal justice system and Black social justice movements, but for the most part, he stayed within the standard parameters of debate.

In 1993, Warner got his big break. He accepted a tenure track position at the University of Louisville to teach Pan-African studies and coach debate. Over the next decade, Warner and his Louisville team fundamentally transformed debating at the college and high school levels.

Louisville debaters used hip-hop and poetry in their speeches. They deployed “narratives” — personal stories about encountering discrimination, whether inside the world of debate or outside it. They refused to debate the topic at hand and asked the opposition to debate a different topic entirely: The United States Federal Government Should Substantially Increase Black Participation in N.D.T./C.E.D.A. debate. (The N.D.T. and the C.E.D.A. are the two major college debate organizations.)

In 2004, for example, when the topic was NATO, Louisville opened a match against Harvard by arguing that the debate community was similar to NATO as an oppressive institution. While researching NATO and the effect of racism on foreign policy, the Louisville debaters argued, they came to the realization that they, as Black people in America, had experiences that the so-called experts they were reading did not.

Warner’s great innovation was to shift the stakes of each round from the theoretical to the personal. His debaters argued that the judge’s ballot could do more than just decide which fake plan was better: By voting for Louisville, the judge could affirm the validity of Black students in debate and, by extension, create a more diverse, inclusive community. By voting against Louisville, he would be implicitly saying that everything was fine.

The debate community gave Warner’s formal experiments a name: The Louisville Project. Warner called it something else: The Malcolm X Debate Society.

Malcolm X debaters, according to Tiffany Dillard-Knox, the current director of debate at Louisville, drew from Black oral traditions. High-level debaters talk at an absurd pace as a way to fit as many arguments as possible into their allotted time. Speed turned debate into a highly technical activity in which hundreds of arguments must be charted and refuted. Louisville debaters, by contrast, talked at a normal pace.

Back in the 1940s, when debate was still a persuasive exercise geared toward producing orators, students from historically Black colleges and universities would routinely beat white Ivy Leaguers; speed debate, with all its ornate absurdities, Malcolm X debaters argued, had been devised as a way to exclude Black people who did not have the resources to participate.

Warner also told his debaters to use what he called “identity advantages,” which he defined as the lived authority to speak on issues pertaining to oppression and racism. This forced their opponents to enter the debate at a deficit. If the other team refused to debate on those terms, or as in several instances, if they responded in ways that might have been deemed discriminatory, Louisville debaters would shut down the round and refuse to continue.

There’s little to dispute about the Malcolm X Debate Society’s central claim: Debate at the high school and collegiate levels had been dominated for decades by elite institutions. The winners of the Tournament of Champions, the most prestigious event in high school debate, came either from the most exclusive private schools in the country — St. Mark’s in Dallas or Westminster in Atlanta — or from high-performing public schools, like Stuyvesant in New York City. Most of those schools could afford to hire a fleet of coaches to write complex, often impenetrable arguments about Foucault, Judith Butler or, ironically enough, critical race theory that hardly anyone in the room could understand, including the students doing the arguing. By drawing the source material for their arguments from what they called organic intellectuals — whether they were rappers, painters or, in many cases, the debaters themselves — Louisville disrupted this credentialism.