College debate: Is logic white?

African-American college students are transforming debate tournaments, writes Jessica Carew Kraft in The Atlantic. Traditional debate — based on logic and evidence — is tainted by “white privilege,” they argue. Instead “alternative” debaters rely on personal experience — and ignore the topic they’re supposed to be debating.

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.

In the 2013 championship, Emporia State students Ryan Walsh and Elijah Smith used a similar style to win two 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.”

Arguments “can come from lived experience,” says Joe Leeson Schatz, Director of Speech and Debate at Binghamton University.

Others say “alternative debate” doesn’t require students to research evidence or develop “the intellectual acuity required for arguing both sides of a resolution.”  

Some colleges may form a new group devoted to “policy debate.”

It’s all part of the war on standards, writes former debater John Hinderaker, now a lawyer, on PowerBlog. The value of debate is “now being lost, as standards have disappeared, logic is out the window, and bullshit about race is replacing actual argumentation.”

Co-blogger Paul Mirengoff, also a lawyer and a former debater, adds:

College debating, it seems, has been radically transformed in ways that make it easier for African-Americans to succeed at it.

As for the notion of “privilege,” it is now clear that the debaters of our era were privileged in a limited but important sense. We were required to take the activity seriously and to meet high standards in order to succeed.

. . . We were also privileged to be judged by adults who held us to knowable standards, and we were privileged to debate serious opponents.

Defining logical argument as a “white thing” does not do blacks any favors, in my opinion.

Joe Miller’s Cross-X, about a low-performing Kansas City high school’s winning debate team — questions the fairness of traditional debate. He profiles black students who win a national tournament, earn college debate scholarships but find they’re not prepared for college-level work.

About Joanne


  1. dangermom says:

    But, but…how do you *win* a debate by ignoring the topic and ranting about whatever you want? Who gave them the trophy? How is that “winning”?

  2. An interesting debate, Joanne. I have to wonder whether there is any actual “winning” in debating, unless the objective is the change the other person’s point of view. I agree with “dangermom” that ranting about whatever you are passionate about somewhat defeats the purpose, but in an open-ended debate, shouldn’t the floor be open to all discussions on the topic? We always say that diversity in our culture is a good thing, as it can lead to collaboration of new ideas and new perspectives. The same goes for education, since that is where most of our best ideas come from, but we have to make sure that we’re not confusing the premise with wild theories.

  3. No, it’s not white. It’s black and white. Formal debate itself is pretty clear–present a position and support it logically–even when the supporting evidence is subject to different interpretation and weight. How offensive to act as though it’s somehow unfair to expect minorities to participate properly in a formal debate. It’s saying that they’re just not as able as the white kids.
    Definitely create policy clubs for these students who just want to tell personal stories and stop letting them ruin real debates. If a kid wants to touch the soccer ball with his hadns, we have him play handball instead. Follow the rules of the game you’re playing.

    • Sam Gustavson says:

      There are no rules in debate other than speech times. You can say anything in a speech as long as you can justify it. They aren’t ranting about just random shit they care about, and they aren’t ruining debates. Are you really that ignorant? If they were just blatantly “breaking rules” and not debating, how the hell would these teams be in the finals of national debate tournaments exactly? Your cute soccer analogy misses the boat, because the rules in debate are UP FOR DEBATE. Your essentialist outsider perspective of the activity fails to recognize that having debates about debate is important because it allows us to analyze the way the activity operates and why we compete in it, which is a prior question to assigning any value to debate.

  4. Sam Gustavson says:

    This is a terrible example of journalism and is steeped in bias that is a result of racism. Maybe you should actually watch these debates, or know something about the activity before you write articles that are complete misrepresentations of what is actually going on in policy debate. These debaters of color never say that “logic is white”, or that logic and argumentation should be abandoned. Debaters like George and Rashid have challenged what is considered “evidence” in traditional debate standards by the insertion of their personal experiences, but they also read evidence from scholars. They do not “abandon the topic” either. You have been misinformed. This year’s college debate topic was the restriction of presidential war powers, and George and Rashid spent all year discussing how war powers are use against minority populations, not just by the government, but by individuals in society as well. As for the policy only league, it is a response to alternative forms of debate having success. All of the bullshit justifications you cite are just a ruse that attempts to cover up the fact that people are frustrated that black folks have finally begun to find a way to compete. They are beating the best “policy” teams by making better arguments…. It’s not like they just get up and claim racism exists and then win the debate. They win because even though they engage in presenting arguments in a different form, the content of the argument is still what is considered at the end of this debate. So before you go posting this racist bullshit where you cite old men with nothing better to do than remenesce about the “glory days” on their blogs, you should know that pretty much the entire debate community and all relevant members today think that the Atlantic article is a gross misrepresentation of our activity and that you and all the other “journalists” out there are not only disrespecting these debaters who have brought so much to our community, but also the community writ large.

    • I’ve been unable to find any link to the debates. Please post a link. Thank you.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      What you say may or may not be true, but in fairness, the most damning bit of evidence is a straight quote that doesn’t seem controverted.

      When you say “Fuck the time” to a signal that your time is up in a timed competition, you’ve earned a DQ in pretty much any sport or competition known to man.

      • Yes. I suppose that if I’m playing a game of chess and losing I can win by picking up the board and throwing the pieces on the floor. How brilliant!

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      “This is a terrible example of journalism and is steeped in bias that is a result of racism”

      And here we have an example of the strategy. Call the other guy a racist as your opening salvo. ad hominem. Wonderful.

    • SuperSub says:

      Actually, logical debate is supposed to exclude anecdotes and be free of emotion…that’s the whole point of logic. Individual experiences do not enhance debate, they corrupt it.

  5. All alternative debate does is encourage complainers to complain more.

  6. Infantile.

  7. cranberry says:

    The problem lies with the judges. If the judges were held to high standards, debate would still value logic. Who’s judging these debates? Who sanctions the judges who reward illogic?

    When prospective debaters see stunts and illogical ramblings accepted in the place of logical arguments, they find something else to do, like Moot Court, Model UN, or math & science contests. Thus, I would not be surprised to find that contemporary college debating does not prepare students for law school–the student who are future lawyers are not interested in participating in contests which have nothing to do with arguments (as traditionally understood.)

    • Mark Roulo says:

      High school debate is usually judged by parents.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        …and non-championship collegiate debate is often judged by college students.

        Who would have thought that the quality of judging would go *down* as the debating got more serious?

      • When I was in high school 15 years ago, we went to regionals and it was often judged by college students. The type of “debate” described in the article would not have been accepted at the high school level back then, never mind college.

  8. These people would have flunked my symbolic logic course in college, period.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Oh, you don’t know that.

      Just because someone *doesn’t* carry out their rhetorical activities in a logical, reasoned way… just because someone chooses to make a spectacle of themselves cursing in the middle of a debate event and openly flouting the rules… just because someone chooses to embrace a simpler, more emotive style of cognition than typically seen in a sixth grade classroom…

      … doesn’t mean that they couldn’t pass a logic course if they cared to.

      So instead of “period”, maybe you should say, “probably”.

  9. SC Math Teacher says:

    The racial grievance industry is alive and well, no matter the damage left in its wake. Criminal, just criminal.

  10. Stacy in NJ says:

    Unfortunately, what will happen is serious traditional debaters will simply do what serious people do when their sphere is invaded with the non-relevant: they’ll abandon it for an alternative. We’ll end up with two systems or programs of debate. Just another form of segregation.

    • Yeah, but it’s self-segregation with which the likes of Mr. Gustavson will loudly find fault.

      Not because there’s any coercion involved but because it provides an opportunity for Mr. Gustavson to demonstrate his moral superiority and redress, to some small extent, the unfortunate fact that he finds himself living at a time when opportunities to demonstrate his moral superiority are distinctly inferior to what they were fifty years ago.

      No lunch counters to desegregate. No marches to Montgomery in which to participate or Freedom buses to ride. Mr. Gustavson’s reduced to defending the use of vulgar language in a formal debate. I’m tempted to feel sorry for him but he really doesn’t care about racial injustice. It’s all about Mr. Gustavson, the moral pinnacle he inhabits and the need to call attention to that fact.

  11. From the KC reference, I am guessing that some of the ranting whiners focused on personal anecdotes are unable to read and research at the level required by formal debate. Having a close associate who did high-level college debate and has decades of coaching high-level (including NFL nationals) HS debate, I am well aware of the size of evidence files which need to be compiled and learned well enough to enable the debater to locate relevant files instantly, during the debate. Without high-level reading skills and a fast-moving intellect, none of the above will happen. The legal eagles have a saying; ” If you have motive, argue motive; if you have evidence, argue evidence; if you have neither, pound the table.” – that probably explains the table pounding in this venue. Rants and personal anecdotes require neither research nor logic.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      However, a successful debater–or politician or lawyer or activist–has to know what kind of rants and personal anecdotes will resonate with the people who hear them.

      Years ago, “would you want your sister to marry one?” was very successful with a lot of powerful people. Today, “I have personally been a victim of white racism” works in a lot of situations.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Yes, Roger, but the anecdote as argument could go to or return to a very ugly place because it is not subjected to objective standards. It could go from, “I’ve been a victim of white racism” to “I’ve been a victim of black crime”. etc.

  12. If you have to change the rules to win, it means you can’t win by playing within the rules. Perhaps blacks should take a minute to think about what this says of them before they argue for it.

  13. cranberry says:

    Stacy in NJ, alternative debating systems have already happened. From searching on YouTube, I found quite a few different debating styles. I have to say, many of the strange styles were practiced by all racial backgrounds. There was one strange style in which the participants read from a computer screen as quickly as possible.

    Parliamentary Debate is still practiced. If you search for the American Parliamentary Debate Association, you’ll find debaters.

  14. If you think fair = “everyone gets the exact same thing”, then you have the mentality of a toddler.