What is the Black Debater Movement?

Over the years there have been small rumblings on niche debate websites about black kids in debate, or the lack thereof.  Astonishingly, the majority of these discussions have been by NON BLACK DEBATERS! It is time...

I've been working on a project and today is as good a day as any to launch my paper and see where it goes.


Problem Area #1: Foundations of debate formats

Policy Debate is one of seven of the debate events recognized by the National Speech & Debate Association.  Policy is the most difficult and least popular form of debate nationwide with the fewest participants in middle and high school and a nearly 100% of the white college debate field and about the same for high school nationally.  Policy Debate has one topic year-round, it is the longest of all the formats per speech/round, and it is the most advanced form due to its jargon, note-taking, logical analysis, and proof of evidence.  It is the hardest form of debate to learn. So why are UDL's involved with policy? Funding... (But I will get to that later).

Problem Area #2: Success in debate goes a LONG way

The only major success by black policy debaters came in the mid-2010’s when black debaters used anti-racist theory arguments attacking the premise of every resolution; some resorted to disassembling the debate itself, adding raps, music, poetry, performance, and speeches that contained inflammatory language.  This approach was needed to dismantle the white supremacy that had dominated debate for years; however, it was short lived, and in fact purposely dodged the policy debate at the core and resorted to more theory than policy, which is allowed in the rules of policy debate, but either frowned upon greatly or not allowed at all in the other six other formats in middle and high school.  Those pioneer debaters should be heralded as black debate heroes, but the effect was isolated to policy debate and once white and non-black debaters, and other black debaters who went against similar arguments learned how to get around the style, and once judges grew weary of the style, the victories were over.  Also, this phenomenon never fully made its way down to middle and high school debate tournaments mainly because UDL’s only competed against other UDL’s and there was no need to bring up those types of arguments.  And there were no black debaters on traditional debate teams, so it was pointless.  Plus, based on the other styles of popular debate, there was more room for exploring the topic itself.  Despite that, the problem still exists in the debate world, the lack of black debaters. Crucially, UDL’s were mostly non-black, that’s at the core of the problem.

Nationally Affiliated Urban Debate Leagues account for 22 leagues across the country. There are 11,000 students in the league.  37% or roughly 4,000 of students in UDL are black.  If all 4,000 of these debaters competed in the National Speech and Debate Association at every debate competition in the country, they would only make up 2% of all  of the over 140,000 speech & debate students.  Of that population, even fewer students would compete in Junior Varsity and Varsity divisions and even fewer would advance to elimination rounds.  There is a multifaceted problem with Black debater participation.

Problem Area #3 National Debate Tournaments
(Tournament of Champions)

Traveling is the most important factor when learning debate skills.  Students who are able to travel to tournaments outside of their area compete in what are called Invitational Debate tournaments.  Black & Hispanic students are extremely rare on the “National Circuit” and almost never appear in the top 32 teams in any tournament (break rounds).  There were no black debaters at the Tournament of Champions this year and there have only been 2 all black teams in history in Policy and none in Public Forum or Lincoln Douglas. 

The Root 

The absence of black students in TOCs is rooted in lack of debate programming in elementary-high school, lack of black debaters in extended debate camps and lack of black debaters at qualifying invitationals during the school year.  Even further exacerbating the problem, minority-majority schools do not support their debate teams with paid coaches, trips, stipends for judges, training, hosting local tournaments, class instruction, or debate electives. They fail to encourage students to join debate teams, gather data on success of debaters and transfer that data to parents and teachers, and most of all they are totally unaware of the realm of debate that catapults  non-black students into college and debate-related fields.  Even worse, at diverse schools where there are debate teams, most of the students on the team are white or non-black and black students who are potential debaters are completely ignored by white or non-black coaches at those schools.   Most, if any, are steered towards speech teams where black students are known to perform and act, read poetry and prose, and where they excel nationally on average. Speech events are not debate events.

Problem Area #4 College Debate

Debate in college is similarly absent of any black debaters.  Black policy debaters make up about 4 percent of debaters in college and about 1 percent of them are successful according to rankings.  On college teams, even at the few HBCU’s where there is a debate team, the number of black debaters is on average about 6 students.  Popular debate programs like Wiley College, Morehouse, and Howard are extremely rare.  One solution has been to create an Annual HBCU Speech & Debate National Competition, and this is a huge step in the right direction which can eventually circle back to pipeline students into debate.  HBCU’s are also now debating against more PWI’s.  This can continue and results in virtually more black debaters in the national leagues on the middle and high school level.  HBCU does provide a space for black students to debate, which is productive, and it does show that black students do not need to step into the mostly white realm of debate, but the problem still pervades the system from the beginning to end, the lack of black debaters overall. Large and successful HBCU debate teams are in places where more black students are pipelined into debate from high school.

Solutions & Recommendations

Elementary-School level

Hire Black & Brown and then non-black head debate coaches and assistant coaches
Start Debate Teams with Public Forum, Parliamentary Debate Styles
Host Debate Tournaments at the school
Add debate to the curriculum as a mandatory class
Invite School and local leaders to tournaments
Attend as many known Elementary School tournaments within the region to expose students to other debaters and styles 

Middle School level

Do everything on the Elementary level with the addition of the following:
Start Debate Teams with Public Forum, Congress, Parliamentary and Lincoln Douglas Debate Styles
Secure membership for every student in the National League and Local non-Urban Debate Leagues unless they allow debate styles beyond Policy Debate
Raise or dedicate needed funding for all fees related to tournaments as this is the main barrier to debate participation
Attend as many known middle and high School tournaments within the country to expose students to other debaters and styles
Attend the National Speech and Debate Association’s National Competition
Attend the Tournament of Champions National Debate Tournament
Hire qualified coaches for online case reviews
Purchase all needed briefs, materials & computers
Send all debaters to debate camp for at least two weeks


High School level

Do everything recommended on the middle school level, with the addition of the following:
Hosting a TOC Bid Tournament at the school and other 1 day tournaments during the year
Participate in JV & Varsity level debate
Monthly TOC travel tournaments beyond the region
Attending National Qualifier in the district for the National Speech and Debate Association
Form 501c3 organization at each school fully dedicated to sustaining the debate team no matter the costs of debate
Highlight local debaters on the news, in the yearbook, school newspaper, social media, etc…
Attract sponsors to invite debate students to events and pay for their individual debate related expenses
Apply & pay for 4-6 week debate camps in regions where the students debate
Promote Varsity level participation
Provide High School debaters the opportunity to be paid for coaching elementary and middle school debaters


College Level

HBCU’s should actively recruit black and non-white debaters and provide scholarships
host local middle and high school tournaments at their institutions
participate in Parliamentary debate and Policy Debate
Host the HBCU speech and debate tournament and invite coaches and students to watch


PWI’s should actively recruit black and non-white debaters and provide scholarships
host local middle and high school tournaments at their institutions
participate in Parliamentary debate and Policy Debate

School systems
Dedicate funds specifically to build and support debate teams, teachers, and black and brown students in the schools
Invite all local school board members to debate tournaments nationally and in their local districts
Provide transportation for travel tournaments when possible

Dedicate funds specifically to build and support debate teams, teachers, and black and Hispanic students  in the schools
Pay for black and Hispanic debaters to attend camps that can cost between $2000-$6000
Support debate leagues that are allowing students to debate in all forms of debate
Promote and financially support students who excel in national tournaments
Donate materials needed to be successful in debate 


Possible partners to start:

Koch Foundation

Sharko Foundation





Law Firms

Black Fraternities and Sororities 

Obama Foundation

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