South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, the only Black U.S. senator currently in office from within the GOP ranks, may believe “America is not a racist country” as he stated during his rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s first address to Congress on April 28.
But the recent decision by the debate team from Morehouse, quickly followed by those from Spelman and several other colleges, to withdraw from the 2021 United States Universities Debate Championship (USUDC) suggests that anti-Black perspectives remain alive and well on many American campuses.
It may be difficult to ascertain the degree at which racist sentiments continue to fester among both students and faculty on America’s college campuses But by their refusal to allow further examples of racial bias as confirmed by their withdrawal, students have implied that the America in which they live and that heralded by Senator Scott cannot be the same.
The speech and debate team from Morehouse College in Atlanta withdrew from the national tournament in mid-April – fed up after suffering numerous instances of racially-based mockery and bias from other teams. Their exasperation only increased, they said, after the team’s complaints to tournament officials remained largely ignored.
The team from Spelman College quickly joined their colleagues and withdrew from the championship in a reported act of solidarity, followed by several other teams which included Clemson and Vanderbilt. Their collective actions led to the cancellation of the tournament in which teams had already advanced through several rounds.
Tournament officials subsequently sponsored a public forum so that both students and judges from across the U.S. could voice their concerns and share personal tales of racism encountered during their debate careers.
Success is Familiar to the Morehouse Men
The speech and debate team representing Morehouse, one of the nation’s premier historically Black men’s colleges and universities, had been competing in the 2021 championship of the British Parliamentary-style debate, conducted virtually over Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In recent years, Morehouse has experienced enviable success: a finalist in the 2015 USUDC more recent victories by the A-team “dynamic duo” of Daniel Edwards and Caleb Strickland at Vanderbilt and at the Social Justice Debates national championship.
Edwards, the Morehouse team’s captain, points to Round 5 during which antics from other competitors not only violated rules of the tournament but occurred with such frequency that he and his teammates could no longer, in good conscience, participate.
“They would try and mimic and caricaturize the kind of communicative idiosyncrasies of our voices while trying to invalidate our arguments and using that kind of just racist mockery to address our points in the round,” he said. “That was just so incredibly offensive that we felt like we needed to go to [the equity committee] immediately after because that’s the job that they’re put in place for the tournament to do.”
“And it had a very harmful effect on the emotional and mental health of my partner. So obviously, as captain of the team, I’m going to want to take a stand,” he said.
Edwards said the team additionally believed that racial bias had influenced the decisions of several of the judges. But the decision to finally withdraw came after the tournament’s equity committee reneged on its promise to first review a complaint filed by Morehouse and to then issue a statement about racial equity before the next round.
In their statement outlining their experiences and reasons for their withdrawal, Morehouse wrote, “[A]fter experiencing issues of anti-Blackness, and ableism by extension, at this tournament to a worrying extent we can no longer continue to compete and support the tournament in good conscience.”
The impact from the Morehouse protest cannot be overstated as some insiders, including the team’s veteran debate coach, Ken Newby, have asked for reform within the mostly-white, elite world of college debate for years — demands which the powers-that-be must finally take seriously. So, while the team, which began over a century ago, has built a reputation for success at both the national and international levels, student debaters have similarly been the persistent and not-so-subtle victims of racism.
“This was the last straw,” Newby said to reporters from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, referring to aggressive, anti-Black behavior exhibited by white debaters in the room and captured on camera – cameras that should have been turned off.
Sadly, Newby, an Atlanta-based attorney, said this year’s team, which had just won a debate competition, ranks among his best.
However, given what they’d been forced to endure, the team’s decision to withdraw from the 2021 USUDC, one which he “supported completely,” remained inevitable.
“For me, there was no choice,” Newby said.