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

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By their very nature, formal competitive debates are absurd and embarrassing for everyone involved. Nothing really gets resolved, except that one debater sounds more clever or passionate than the other. Outside of their utility in elections, in which they function more as pageants of ideas than actual litigations, the modern history of high-profile, memorable debate consists of one data point: About half a century ago, Gore Vidal sneered at William F. Buckley Jr., who called him a slur in return. And yet debate persists as an ideal in the American discourse — the one space where ideas might be freed from the endless context and inconvenient baggage of the real world and judged on their pure merits. This, of course, is nonsense.

When I was asked to write this newsletter, my first thoughts went to a debate I judged about a decade ago in California that pitted a white and Asian American team from Orange County against a Black squad from Long Beach. The latter was running a new type of argument called “narratives” — an identity-based form of debating, which a couple of excited friends had called “revolutionary.” They were right, not so much in terms of the impact of “narratives” within the debate community — though it was transformative — but in how its compelling back story predicted and laid out so many of today’s urgent, thorny questions about race, education and who has the right to speak on what.

I will be covering a wide variety of topics in this space — everything from education and housing policy to politics and gambling. But I wanted to start this newsletter with this excavation of a seemingly irrelevant bit of history — both because I think the episode itself is prescient about the moment we’re all living through and also because I think it will help give readers a sense of how I view the world.

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.

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.

Warner presided over only part of the evolution of debate that took place over the next two decades. He resigned as part of a settlement in 2011, after being accused of sexual harassment. (He has challenged the settlement in the Kentucky court system.) These allegations came two years after he was charged with arson and assault in connection with a domestic dispute; he pleaded guilty to some of the charges.

But his project continued without him. As alternative debate, as Louisville’s debate style was eventually called, slowly filtered out into the wider community, it evolved to encapsulate other ideas and identities. Some teams began to recruit Black debaters as a way to counter Louisville’s identity advantages, which meant Warner, whose original goal was to diversify debate, made the progress he wanted. By 2013, when a gay, Black squad from Emporia State University became the first team to win both the C.E.D.A. and N.D.T. titles in the same season by focusing on the intersection between Black and queer identity, alternative debate had become firmly established at the highest levels of the activity.

The debate I judged was between inexperienced debaters. The team from Orange County spent most of the round with confused, anxious looks on their faces. They tried to express that something was unfair about all this but quickly demurred and more or less agreed that debate needed more people like those on the team from Long Beach. At the end of the round, as the two teams went through perfunctory handshakes, the white and Asian team laughed with relief and said they had learned a lot. I agreed and voted for the team from Long Beach. Something was happening, and I wanted to put myself on the right side.

I have thought and rethought that decision for the past decade. The country certainly faces larger problems than diversity in debate, but as state legislatures pass laws banning critical race theory in schools and the discussion of politics devolves into a pyrrhic culture war, Warner’s intervention certainly deserves a second look as a precursor for what was to come.

Many of Louisville’s innovations, for example, came from Warner’s reading of actual critical legal studies and critical race theory scholars like Mari Matsuda, Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, especially his team’s contention that the best way to learn about oppression was to hear the narratives of the people who have been oppressed. By routing every debate topic, from NATO expansion to climate change, toward American racism, Warner created a literal hierarchy of who should be heard and what should be discussed.

There was also a whiff of racial essentialism in Louisville’s core arguments: Was there really a Black way to debate? Was there no real value in reading the opinions of experts on the effects of racist foreign policy, even if its harms fell on other people? And was race really the correct way to view the problem of elitism and exclusivity in the community?

A healthy portion of the winners of the Tournament of Champions have been so-called people of color (mostly Asian Americans), but there have been precious few women or poor people of any racial background. By focusing only on race and, more specifically, the alienation and discomfort felt by the individual debaters in the round, the scope of the debate narrowed from the theoretical world down to the actual power dynamics within the room, namely a debate team at Louisville, one of the finest public universities in the country, versus another debate team, often representing another fine university.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of debaters are middle- and working-class kids in mediocre or failing high schools. They put on blazers and pantsuits on Saturdays, drive to a nearby tournament, speak persuasively to an audience of parent chaperones and never see the Tournament of Champions, much less an elite college debate.

If I were asked to describe — in the broadest terms possible — my general thoughts on things, I would say that most things are uncomplicated, some things are complicated, but almost everything worth writing about is both uncomplicated and complicated. In the abstract world of debate, I disagree with many of Warner’s arguments for the reasons stated above. Simple enough. But in the messier world, I acknowledge that he correctly assessed that the very real problems of inequality in debate could be addressed only when actual wins and losses were on the line. No amount of diversity training, conferences or “dialogue” would have done as much as one powerful team taking a loss. I admire his ability to see a problem, apply a method he believed in and change the face of debate.

The Louisville Project worked. And although I am skeptical of the type of identity politics that Warner practiced, which downplays the effects of class and can, when applied sloppily, preclude solidarity by placing one narrative above all others, it should be pointed out that it wasn’t a Black team from Northwestern, Dartmouth or Emory that ultimately won the National Debate Tournament in 2013 but rather Emporia State, a school that accepts over 80 percent of its applicants and has an in-state tuition under $7,000 a year. An identity-first approach, in other words, took the most prestigious title in debate away from the rich, powerful schools.

Still, I believe Warner’s project presaged a profound change in the way that race and inequality are now discussed, not so much in ideology but rather in methodology. The range of possible solutions to problems of inequality have drifted together and consolidated themselves. What has resulted is a false consensus.

This, at first, might seem counterintuitive — there is, for example, a wider scope of electoral choices on both ends of the political spectrum than there was a decade ago. There are more pathways into politics that go beyond the electoral: Last summer, millions of people went out to protest in the streets at a scale and intensity that had not been seen before in my lifetime.

But this broadening has also been accompanied by a type of forced acquiescence to whatever proposal gets the most traction. Too often, this requires us to bury any criticisms we may have of it. The University of California, for example, recently ended the use of the SAT and the ACT in its admissions process. This policy, which is being phased in, was meant to address the lack of diversity at the system’s 10 campuses — even though we are far from having a consensus on the effect that standardized tests have on diversity, much less what forms of “diversity” count at these schools with massive Asian populations. Still, the move — in some corners, at least — was cast in stark terms: If you want diversity, you must agree with eliminating the SAT and the ACT. If you criticize the decision, you must oppose diversity.

I call this process “binary consensus building.” When judges voting in a Louisville Project debate were presented with the problem of exclusion in debate, they were given two choices for resolving it: Vote Team A or Team B. Similarly, a recent rise in reactionary politics has meant that the range of possible solutions to policy issues has been drastically reduced, forcing people into a type of acquiescence to whatever solution gets placed in front of them. Do you want to stop inequality or not? Are you a racist or an anti-racist? Do you care about race or class? Are you on Team A or Team B?

I recently read a conversation between the historian Robin D. G. Kelley and the writer Vinson Cunningham in Image, The Los Angeles Times’s style magazine. Kelley talks about his career in the academy and activism, which started with the Black student union at Cal State Long Beach and went through study groups, various antiwar efforts, the anti-apartheid movement, the Communist Workers’ Party and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. His political life felt almost unfathomably broad — here was someone who, over the course of 30 years, had tried different things to solve the same trenchant problems with intellectual generosity and unorthodox inquiry.

In that spirit, I hope this newsletter will present a maximalist approach that broadens the range of possibilities.

Have feedback? Send me a note at [email protected].

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