Monday, March 4, 2013

The Great Debate: Columbia vs. Howard, March 02, 2013

The Great Debate is a series that began in 2007, pitting historically black colleges against Ivy League schools in public debates on socially relevant topics.  It was inspired by the movie, The Great Debaters, which recounts the story of a debate during the Jim Crow 1930s between the historically black Wiley College and Harvard (in reality it was against USC who, as the reigning champions of the day, were beaten by Wiley in that encounter).  Yesterday, one of these debates was held in Harlem between Columbia University and Howard University.

 The First Corinthian Baptist Church, an ornate and grand building which began its life as Regents Theater, a 1913 movie palace, stands in Harlem, at the intersection of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. and 115th. Street. Wide pavements and elegant buildings blend together celebrating this city’s magnificence and offering a pointer to what this city must have looked like a hundred years ago.  It was here that the debate was held, in front of a packed house, and for the first time outside of a college campus.

Half an hour prior to the start, the theater was mostly filled.  Local political bosses and community representatives milled around the auditorium front, trying to stay out of the way of the sound and lights guys putting their final touches on the arrangements. Mr. John Liu, the New York City Comptroller arrived with perfect hair and a radiant smile, shaking hands, patting arms, exchanging small talk in the way seasoned bureaucrats do.

The afternoon began on time, at 3:30, with rousing speeches by the president of the NAACP and the church pastor.  They were strong, fluid, emotional messages that could get the hair on one’s skin to stand up.  They extolled the importance of debate, of intellectual argument, of education. The crowd responded with passion.  It was a very different New York City, one that I was much less familiar with, and a sharp departure from the dressed in black “what’s-in-it-for-me” Manhattan, and the “where is my favorite barista” Manhattan (barristers seeking baristas). Voter registration booths and college information desks had been set up in the foyer outside.  It was a Saturday afternoon, and over a thousand people were here to listen to a debate between college students.

One of the privileges of being an immigrant is that even after nearly thirty years in the country, you can still take an outsider’s far field view.  Today, this view brought to focus the media’s indifference towards this community on subjects that fall outside of stereotypes.  I scanned Google news the next morning and found not a single item in a major city newspaper that described the event.  In this city’s distorted social circus, a large and relevant gathering of debate enthusiasts organized by the NAACP and attended by so many from near and far, with some members of the audience bused in from as far as Connecticut, takes a backseat to noting in print, inconsequential marriages between the children of the city’s bankers and corporate captains.

Mr Liu got things rolling and gave an upbeat address: the teams he said would debate important issues.  His reliance on generic terms and autopilot speech led me to wonder whether he actually knew what the topic of the debate was.

After his speech, Mr. Liu shook a few more hands and left the building.  The debate started. There were two motions for the afternoon’s oratory—the appropriateness of the stop and frisk practice; and whether hand gun control was necessary. The stop and frisk law is in effect in New York City, where a police officer can frisk someone based simply upon suspicion.  Over 90% of those searched are Blacks and Hispanics and a majority of them wind up being unnecessary.  It is a tinderbox of a topic.  The Columbia University team spoke against the practice.  Howard University supported it. The situation here was a bit difficult. Columbia was the “home school” with its Harlem location, yet it was part of a bevy of elite ivy colleges where over 40% of admissions are from private schools.  Them lecturing Howard on the perils of stop and frisk could be interpreted as surrealistic, but the Howard speaker reminded the audience in his opening speech that this was an intellectual debate, the crowd was fair and focused, and the playing field for the opponents remained level.  The exchanges were eloquent, the moderator was funny, and there were sharp parries and rebuttals with, at times, interesting inversions.  Following a rhetoric filled Columbia salvo, an exasperated Howard University debater noted that he did not need a lecture on racism.

Upon conclusion of the debate the stage turned into a melee of photograph taking, and there was a warmth in the proceedings that is hard to find. The large circle of photographers clicked away as middle school debaters and members of the audience posed with the participants and the moderator. A lone Bangladeshi reporter wandered around looking lost.  He was an independent journalist and was going to file a report. 

A reception for the speakers was held before the debate began. The president of the NAACP, the charismatic Mr. Benjamin Jealous was there.  He beckoned a Columbia debater towards him.  “I can’t let you represent my alma mater wearing your tie like that”.  And then proceeded to re-knot the young man’s tie.  It was a moment that the young man will remember for many years to come.

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