Looking for Racism on the Right: A Case Study

2014-05-23 Townson U

There’s a story percolating through the right wing blogosphere right now about the victory of Townson U in a national debate contest “by repeating N-word and babbling nonsense.” The fact that the winning team consists of two black females is never mentioned explicitly1, but race is obviously a part of this story. The (unspoken) gist of it appears to be something like: black students who are not actually competent at debate got an award because of political correctness. To back that up, the blog posts feature transcripts and YouTube videos of the debate, like this one.

That video contrasts the two young ladies in a news story, where they speak articulately and calmly, with clips of their emotional and quite frankly weird speech during the debate. It’s an ugly video because of what it implies instead of having the courage to say. The cuts are obviously designed to undermine what the young ladies say to the reporter with seemingly contradictory excerpts from their debate performance. For example, the reporter asks, “Once you know the topic, what’s next?” One of the women replies, “Well, you do a lot of research.” And then there’s an immediate cut to the debate right at the point where one of the speakers is stuttering heavily. Race is never mentioned, but the point is clear.

Now, I approached this story without any special inside info. I’ve never debated competitively, nor have I ever seen a competitive debate. But I decided to do the one thing that the conservative bloggers apparently decided to skip. Research.

I started with two hypotheses that might explain the apparent contradiction between assumptions about what a national championship debate team might sound like and the jarring YouTube footage. Either this was in some sense an “urban” form of debate or, more likely, the timing rules of competitive debate forced competitors to adopt really strange, unnatural speech patterns. It’s not hard at all for me to imagine, for example, that competitors are judged purely based on the content of their argument and not so much their delivery and/or that the expectations for content delivery are much different in a competitive setting.

I started with the first one because while it seemed less likely, it would be easy to check. Is the Cross Examination Debate Association a minority-focused group? No, it is not.Founded in 1971, it is “the largest intercollegiate policy debate association in the United States.”

So I went to my second hypothesis and decided the simplest thing to do would be to check on the winners from last year. If I got a video of some white competitors using roughly the same kind of speech, I’d kill two birds with one stone. Clearly, if last year’s competitors were white, there wouldn’t be some kind of obvious minority-preference and secondly, if this is how the teams from last year sounded then it would strongly indicate that what we’re hearing has nothing to do with race and is just the way competitive debate works. I searched YouTube and, on the first try, hit the jackpot. Here’s a video called: “More CEDA 2013 Debate Highlights.” A couple of things to note before you watch it:

  1. It features two teams consisting of three white women and one white man.
  2. It represents the “highlights,” so ostensibly this is what competitive debaters find impressive.
  3. It does, indeed, feature the exact same speech: very fast, slurred technical terms, rapid-fire breathing, and weird stuttering.

So let’s recap. In 2013, and probably in many years before that, white kids won a debate contest that, by its competitive nature, seems to require participants to speak in really, really weird ways. No one cared. In 2014, black women won the debate contest using the same tactics, but suddenly conservative writers noticed, 2 and they wrote off the bizarre-sounding speech as “unintelligible gibberish” without checking to see if that’s just how debates work.

So: assumptions about folks being less intelligent and/or less capable of speaking standard English because they are black. Yup, that looks like racism to me.

Am I missing something here?

4 thoughts on “Looking for Racism on the Right: A Case Study”

  1. I don’t think you are missing anything.

    I have seen the occasional debate competition, and I remember that style. I frankly don’t get it — Why do a debate competition where the participants are staring at a screen and speaking at lightning speed? Who really wants to listen to that or watch it? If the actual speaking and body language don’t matter, why not make it a written debate? You can barely understand half the words as they are spoken anyway. Why is speed so important that all other factors are thrown out? I’m all about thinking on your feet, but I personally see more value in balancing debate content with public speaking skills. I saw debate examples back in the day when they had paper instead of screens. It looked slightly more natural, but not much. They stood up straight at a podium instead of leaning into a laptop.

    That’s just my take on debate competitions in general. The only racial difference that I see — The use of the “N” word. That would likely be unacceptable for white participants, but is clearly acceptable for the African-American participants.

  2. You are on the right track. I did debate in high school. This type of debate is called policy debate, at least on the high school level. The idea isn’t to be articulate, it’s to get the most amount of information into the debate as possible. Teams have stacks of research that they need to win, but only what is said in the opening rounds is admissible in later rounds. Thus every single competitor adopts this style of speech to get as much info into the debate as they can, and thus win. The stuttering and weird breathing keeps up your O2 , allowing you to keep talking fast without fainting. However that’s only the first few rounds of the debate, and is followed by a more normal style after (again determined what was said in the earlier rounds). Fun fact, the song “It’s the end of the world” by R.E.M. was inspired by it.

  3. Keep in mind this trend of not researching before you write an article or make headlines about a situation is typical of many journalists today on either side of the political spectrum. Sadly it seems journalism has become more about presenting your political slant in the best light rather than actually trying to get facts out correctly. Maybe it is racism, or perhaps just bad journalism. Honestly, with this one I’m leaning towards racism.

  4. You are spot on Nathaniel. Way to ‘Snopes’ this thing out. I would agree with LT in that about the only difference is the use of the ‘N’ word.

    Lazy reporting on the part of whoever posted the original video.

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