Ghetto kids gone good: race, representation, and authority in the scripting of inner-city youths in the urban debate league.

Author:Reid-Brinkley, Shanara Rose

At 20 years old, I became a "poster child" for a national not-for-profit program, the Urban Debate League (UDL). The UDL targets minority, inner-city high schools to provide resources and support for the development of competitive debate teams, debate as public advocacy, and use of debate across the curriculum as an effective tool to increase student success in failing inner-city school systems. Developing at the height of the 1990s discourse of the "black/white achievement gap" and the "acting black" hypothesis in media representation of inner-city students, UDLs have generated significant media interest. Having debated as part of the pilot version of the program and achieving both high school and college success, I became an optimal "poster child." Add a propensity to like being in front of a crowd, and I became a significant asset in persuading administrators, teachers, and students about the potential effectiveness of the program. Every now and then, someone would write a human-interest piece about our high school team or the local university's outreach program, and later about the national UDL program. So I was well versed in the script the reporters seemed to like the most. I was an inner-city kid that faced situational and structural obstacles on the road to success, an "at-risk" youth who might have been lost to the ills associated with poor, black communities if it had not been for debate participation. Yet, that narrative never sat comfortably with me; it never seemed to really represent the reality of my situation. If being black and working-class was all that made one "at-risk," then the narrative made sense. But, there is more implied by that characterization, including assumptions about my family and community background that were often inaccurate.

I remember one particular incident that most clearly highlighted my sense of discomfort. I was still in college and maintaining my "poster child" relationship with the UDL. Melissa Wade, my college debate director at Emory University, was contacted by a production company that wanted to put together a human-interest segment to be broadcast by a number of local news stations along the east coast. In addition to interviewing Wade, the producers also requested an interview with the two African American students on the Emory team who had been former members of the university's outreach program, and I was one of those students. I put on a nice suit (one my mom picked out and paid what was, at the time, a lot of money for her and my dad to spend) and went to the interview, conducted in the middle of the central two-block quadrangle on the university's campus. Emory's architecture is quite beautiful. The quad was almost two blocks of open green space where students played Frisbee, studied while sunbathing, or attended class on a beautiful spring day. The quad is bound on all sides by clean, light-marble buildings. Everything is incredibly bright and fresh, gleaming in the Georgia sunshine. The interview went well, the reporter asking about my debate career and the UDL program. The interviewer thanked me for my time and I went on my way. A few weeks later, my debate coach called me into her office for a chat. It seemed that the producers would like to interview me again, this time while touring the inner-city community where I had grown up and the high school I had attended. I wanted to know why they had made that request before I made a decision. The producer agreed to call me within a few days. With that time to think about the request, I began to visualize what the edited version of the piece would look like. They would show my interview on campus and contrast the image of the university's economic privilege with the "darker" image of my inner-city community. It was the "ghetto kid gone good" narrative that had already begun to make me uncomfortable. The producer finally called and I expressed my concern about their need to contrast my economic (and racial) background to that of my college environment as a means of sensationalizing my story. I simply wondered why my achievements, which were the focus of the interview, could not stand on merit alone. The producer was completely clueless and after going in circles with her for 20 minutes, I realized we were not going to get anywhere. At the end of our conversation, she stated "But, I don't understand, I mean you did go to school there." I told her that I would not be granting them a second interview and terminated the conversation.

The representation of successful UDL students is of human-interest appeal. It contrasts with the dominant narrative that constructs inner-city children of color as deviant and intellectually inferior. Yet, the representation of success is extremely restrictive, requiring the embodiment and enactment of the "ghetto" at-risk youth narrative to produce the transformative discourse of exceptionalism read tokenism. The repetition of the dangerous urban youth of color character as the most used representation of UDL students suggests an inability of news media to tell the success stories of inner-city students of color outside this frame. The texture and complexity of the lives of UDL students is lost within the constraints of a pre-determined frame that restricts these students to the scripts made available to them in a society bound by the ontological standard of whiteness at the intersection of the material privileges associated with economic wealth.

As a 20-year-old, I lacked the vocabulary to fully articulate my discomfort with the scripts made available to me. What I intuitively understood to be happening was ignored by the news producer and by every other media representative I encountered. I am an "outsider within," to use Patricia Hill Collins's (1998) term, one "who no longer belong[s] to any one group" (p. 5). I occupy a borderland space between various communities, including the academy, the UDL, college debate, and the black community in which I was raised, where all or part of my subjectivity can be rejected or vilified at any moment. It is within this liminal space that I engage in an oppositional reading of the discourses surrounding UDL students in news media representation. Such an oppositional reading recognizes and engages the dominant, or suggested, reading offered within a field of signification (Hall, 1997). Rather than offering an alternative or more positive reading in opposition to the suggested read, I seek to highlight the modalities by which racialized representation reproduces itself.

The UDL provides media and education scholars with the opportunity to study news media attempts at creating socially responsible representations of inner-city youths of color. By examining the transformative narrative of redemption in news representations of UDL activity, this essay contributes to an understanding of the participation of news organizations in the maintenance or subversion of dominant discourses that surround black youths. How news organizations script the body and life experience of the UDL students-as threats to civic order in an effort to redeem them through their debate participation--may offer the opportunity to trace race, gender, and class ideologies as technologies of power as they emerge within and through news media representation.

To explore the way in which news media script the bodies of those participating in the UDL, I begin with a brief description of the Urban Debate League after which I describe the narrative framing techniques associated with the representation of inner-city black bodies. In particular, Ronald Jackson's (2006) theory of scripting and media framing of black bodies informs the arguments of this essay. I argue that news media coverage of UDL activity scripts key actors in ways that simultaneously reproduce themes from dominant media frames and invite readers to fashion redemptive scripts that appear to transcend the negative stereotypes so prevalent in news coverage of black culture. I identify the scripts made available to black youths in the news representations of UDL activities. The scripts news media reproduce are grounded in racialized constructions of urban youth. This media reproduction is, in turn, a reinscription by which they attempt to negate these traditional narratives. I am interested in the complexities associated with news media attempts to reinscript black bodies to fit within a transformational narrative.

Before moving onto the body of my essay, however, a word about language choice is necessary. Throughout the essay, I have chosen to use the term black rather than African-American in order to open up the spectrum of what bodies are considered black or blackened in the context of the U.S. social imagination. Blackness is more broadly signified than its reference to African-American people. In order to theorize about blackness, scholars must begin to consider the manner in which it remains both connected to and disconnected from an understanding of black as race. When I use the term African-American in the essay, I do so purposefully to denote a sub-group within the larger scope of what signifies as black. In addition, I have chosen not to capitalize the term black. A capitalization of black seems to signify a known quantity, with boundaries that can be easily defined in order to pinpoint who is and is not black. I would argue that blackness has become incredibly fluid, and as a point of intensification for force-relations of power, it is necessary to theorize about blackness from a strategic interrogation of the reproduction and maintenance of black as signifier.


In the mid-1980s, Emery University's debate team, the Barldey Forum, under the direction of Melissa Maxcy Wade, began an urban outreach program in Atlanta funded by a small grant from Phillips Petroleum and the National Forensic League. The five thousand dollar grant spanned a consecutive three-year...

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