Wiley College’s Great Debaters visit

On Wednesday, April 8, Bellevue College hosted a televised debate between Wiley College’s Great Debaters and BC’s team in N201. BC’s debate team representatives Emily Merrill and Teague Crenshaw competed against Wiley College debaters Benjamin Turner and Jesus Cardenas.

The topic of the debate, announced to the audience by Denise Vaughan, was, “when in times of conflict, cultural unity should be valued above cultural diversity.” Crenshaw and Merrill argued for cultural unity, while the Wiley team acted as the opposition and supported cultural diversity.

Before the debate, faculty representatives from both schools gave introductory speeches. BC’s Director of Forensics Denise Vaughan thanked the Great Debaters for their participation, complimenting them as  some of the best in the country.

In the beginning, the debate was whether the topic insinuated a values debate, or a policy debate. Crenshaw was the first speaker and advocated a cultural unity policy, taking the term conflict to mean one between the United States and an outside force. He said that in times of crisis, it is important to find solidarity, and that in the face of a threat to the country, citizens must first consider their identity as Americans and use that common ground to unify themselves.

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Jesus Cardenas of Wiley College debates about cultural diversity.


“A sense of community is exactly what American needs,” said Crenshaw.

Turner of Wiley College debated the topic by saying that the ideals of cultural unity and cultural diversity are in conflict with each other. Turner said that this made the debate one of American values, rather than of American policies in the face of conflict.

Turner argued in favor of diversity, saying that a focus on unity can lead to a rejection of individuality, rather than an acceptance. He also gave the example of Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player, and how his individuality impacted the sport in a positive way. “Diversity is different backgrounds coming together,” Turner said.

“In the end, we need to prove conflict, not mutual exclusivity,” said Merrill, who argued in favor of cultural unity. Merrill said that whether a policy debate or a values debate, Crenshaw’s earlier point still stood, since cultural unity allows for communication and connection through a shared national identity.

Following the debate, Wiley College debate team leader Christopher Medina gave the audience a background on the history and significance of their debate team. Wiley College, located in Texas, is a historically black college, which broke cultural barriers with a black debate team in the early 1930s and ‘40s. Since then, the team has become the subject of the 2007 film, “The Great Debaters.” Denzel Washington, who starred in the film, also donated one million dollars to Wiley College in 2007 so it could re-establish the debate team after it had suffered a few years with insufficient funding.

Before their arrival at BC, the Great Debaters competed in the American Forensics Association tournament in Portland. Marcus Rembert, one of the Great Debaters, described the tournament as brutal, placing 15th among the 96 teams.

Last year, Wiley’s Great Debaters came away from the national Pi Kappa Delta Debate tournament as champions. The victory made Wiley the first historically black college to win the Pi Kappa Delta tournament.

Eric Davis, an instructor at BC, had his Sociology 101 class attend the debate. Cardenas spoke to Davis’s class about the greater implications of choosing unity over diversity and vice versa. He used real-world examples as he did during the debate, bringing up issues like cultural attitudes towards police brutality.

After the debate, both teams, including faculty advisers and team coaches, gathered together for a photo. The students of Wiley and BC gave introductions and had conversations on the debate, college and other topics of common interest.