A Conversation in Ruins: Race and Black Participation in Lincoln Douglas Debate

A Conversation in Ruins: Race and Black Participation in Lincoln Douglas Debate

By Elijah J. Smith


At every tournament you attend this year look around the cafeteria and take note of which students are not sitting amongst you and your peers. Despite being some of the best and the brightest in the nation, many students are alienated from and choose to not participate in an activity I like to think of as homeplace. In addition to the heavy financial burden associated with national competition, the exclusionary atmosphere of a debate tournament discourages black students from participating. Widespread awareness of the same lack of participation in policy debate has led to a growing movement towards alternative styles and methods of engaging the gatekeepers of the policy community, (Reid-Brinkley 08) while little work has been done to address or even acknowledge the same concern in Lincoln Douglas debate. Unfortunately students of color are not only forced to cope with a reality of structural violence outside of debate, but within an activity they may have joined to escape it in the first place. We are facing more than a simple trend towards marginalization occurring in Lincoln Douglas, but a culture of exclusion that locks minority participants out of the ranks of competition.

It will be uncomfortable, it will be hard, and it will require continued effort but the necessary step in fixing this problem, like all problems, is the community as a whole admitting that such a problem with many “socially acceptable” choices exists in the first place. Like all systems of social control, the reality of racism in debate is constituted by the singular choices that institutions, coaches, and students make on a weekly basis. I have watched countless rounds where competitors attempt to win by rushing to abstractions to distance the conversation from the material reality that black debaters are forced to deal with every day. One of the students I coached, who has since graduated after leaving debate, had an adult judge write out a ballot that concluded by “hypothetically” defending my student being lynched at the tournament. Another debate concluded with a young man defending that we can kill animals humanely, “just like we did that guy Troy Davis”. Community norms would have competitors do intellectual gymnastics or make up rules to accuse black debaters of breaking to escape hard conversations but as someone who understands that experience, the only constructive strategy is to acknowledge the reality of the oppressed, engage the discussion from the perspective of authors who are black and brown, and then find strategies to deal with the issues at hand. It hurts to see competitive seasons come and go and have high school students and judges spew the same hateful things you expect to hear at a Klan rally. A student should not, when presenting an advocacy that aligns them with the oppressed, have to justify why oppression is bad. Debate is not just a game, but a learning environment with liberatory potential. Even if the form debate gives to a conversation is not the same you would use to discuss race in general conversation with Bayard Rustin or Fannie Lou Hamer, that is not a reason we have to strip that conversation of its connection to a reality that black students cannot escape.

Current coaches and competitors alike dismiss concerns of racism and exclusion, won’t teach other students anything about identity in debate other than how to shut down competitors who engage in alternative styles and discourses, and refuse to engage in those discussions even outside of a tournament setting. A conversation on privilege and identity was held at a debate institute I worked at this summer and just as any theorist of privilege would predict it was the heterosexual, white, male staff members that either failed to make an appearance or stay for the entire discussion. No matter how talented they are, we have to remember that the students we work with are still just high school aged children. If those who are responsible for participants and the creation of accessible norms won’t risk a better future for our community, it becomes harder to explain to students who look up to them why risking such an endeavor is necessary.

As a student provided with the opportunity and privilege of participation by the Jersey Urban Debate League, I can remember plenty of tournaments in high school where the only black students at the tournament were individuals from my high school. It was a world shattering experience; no one spoke to us first and those we did approach didn’t have to acknowledge the fact that, every weekend, our failures and successes made us the representatives of black America in the minds of students and judges that never had to freely associate with black people. The irony of participation for black students is that to understand your existence in an academic, usually white, space throws that very space into question. They are both told that joining debate will make you smarter, more personable, and better able to communicate; however those who are already there don’t speak to them, they don’t vote for them, and they don’t associate with them. The unanswered question, then, is “For which bodies does LD exist?”

Continuing to parade LD under the guise of neutrality will reproduce the problem at hand. Hiring practices, Judge Preferences /Strike Sheets, invitations to Round Robins, and who coaches don’t require their students to associate with all contribute to the problem at hand because they “accidentally” forget to include people of color. When only two major debate workshops bothered to hire anyone black to work with their students this summer it spoke to the reality of which bodies are seen as being competent enough to teach. Their skills as pedagogues weren’t dismissed because they aren’t qualified, but because they are black .If we are to confront structural discrimination against the black community, we can’t retreat to a defense of neutrality but have to take strides in addressing and ending the cycle of exclusion. If black students do not feel comfortable participating in LD they will lose out on the ability to judge, coach, or to force debate to deal with the truth of their perspectives.

The work that has been done to address the issue has been fragmented and individual at best, leaving the burden of ensuring debate is an accessible space the responsibility of a small vanguard of coaches and students dedicated to improving the conditions of our community. Lincoln Douglas is no longer just the younger sibling of cross examination debate, but has taken on a life of its own. No matter how many times people accuse LD debaters of “misusing” arguments from other events , only someone who has done this event can understand what it is like to teach someone how to answer multiple a-priori’s in a 4-minute 1AR or to efficiently explain how a criterion can encapsulate another in under 20 seconds. Policy may have come first, but just these few examples speak to the norms of our community not being dependent on those of the former. Our ability to address anti-black exclusion should not be dependent on policy debate finding the correct answer first but should be determined by a concerted effort to widen the scope of the conversation.


Reid-Brinkley, Shanara (2008),” The Harsh Realities Of “Acting Black”: How African-American Policy Debaters Negotiate Representation Through Racial Performance and Style” Retrieved from http://www.comm.pitt.edu/faculty/documents/reid-brinkley_shanara_r_200805_phd.pdf