Cover Story

Finding Their Voices

By Karen Houppert
Sunday, August 26, 2007


Heads bent close together, Jermol's braids knock up against Iggy's Mohawk as they map out their evening. They whisper. They argue. They reach an agreement.

Then, with a cocky smile, Jermol, one of the Baltimore Urban Debate League's hottest high school debaters, stands up and begins to speak. Fast.

"In 1999, the Sentencing Project, which keeps track of incarceration rates by race and offense, reported that 32 percent of African American males between the ages of 20 and 29 are in contact with the criminal justice system as compared to 6 percent for white males and 8 percent for Latino males," says Jermol, quoting from The Warrior Method: A Program for Rearing Healthy Black Boys, a 2001 book by Raymond Winbush, a professor at Morgan State's Institute for Urban Research in Baltimore. "Based on current rates of incarceration, the U.S. Justice Department estimates that 28 percent of black males will enter state or federal prisons during their lifetime."

Speaking with the rapid-fire speed typical of competitive debaters, who have only eight minutes to cram all their arguments into an opening statement, Jermol waves his hand in front of his stomach like a metronome that keeps his pace so swift as to make his words almost unintelligible. He spits out facts about the nation's prison system and black men's disproportionate place in it. "Sixty-seven percent of prison inmates were of color, compared to 65 percent in 1990, with African Americans making up 46 percent of state and federal prisoners," he says.

"If this trend continues, by the year 2015 half of all black men in America will be in contact with the criminal justice system via incarceration, probation, parole or indictment."

After eight minutes of Jermol firing facts, figures, quotes, sources and assertions at his competitors, a timer goes off. He stops mid-sentence -- and grins.

He plops down at a school desk too small for his lanky frame and sinks into a deep slouch, his super-skinny self nearly buried in the hooded sweatshirt he never removes.

His debate partner, Iggy, thumps him on the back and the two 17-year-olds from Baltimore size up their Midwestern competition.

Across the mostly empty classroom where this national debate tournament is taking place, two students from Ronald Reagan College Preparatory High School in Milwaukee seem a little stunned at this presentation by Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School debate team. Sixteen-year-old Angela Jones, a junior at Reagan, simply looks at Jermol and says, after a moment, "Whoa."

The teens are participating in the annual, highly competitive J.B. Fuqua Urban Debate League Novice Celebration in Atlanta, where 14 of the top teams from around the country have convened for the season-culminating competition. The Reagan students came prepared to debate the official resolution -- a proposal to increase young people's national service in organizations such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Teach for America and the armed services. They have been researching and debating this very topic all year. They have tons of material about volunteerism sorted into files, placed in rubber bins and dragged halfway across the country on a plane from Milwaukee. They have been eating, sleeping and dreaming "volunteerism" for months, debating both the pros and cons of this issue at competitions across the Midwest.

They know how to argue it upside down and inside and out.

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