Author Archives: Karma R. Chávez

Community Debates: Where Activism and Deliberation Converge

On March 12, 2015, Dr. Sara McKinnon and I hosted the second in what we imagine to be an ongoing series of community debates regarding incarceration and law enforcement in Dane County. Over 300 people attended the debate, which considered the following proposition: Renovations to the Dane County Jail will ensure the safety of vulnerable people in our community. The debate featured County Sheriff David Mahoney and local physician and retired professor, Dr. Douglas Kramer on the affirmative side and M. Adams of Freedom Inc., and the Young Gifted and Black Coalition along with Nino Rodriguez of the MOSES Jail Taskforce on the negative. You can watch it here. There were many reasons for hosting this debate on this topic, but primarily we wanted to create a forum to consider the different sides of an ongoing discussion at the county level about whether to renovate the county jail due to what the Sheriff says are grave safety concerns (originally the conversation was about whether to build a brand new jail, though after months of local agitation, that proposal was taken off the table). Members of the communities most impacted by incarceration and policing and their allies have loudly spoken against these proposals, demanding the county build the people, not the jail.

For some in these latter communities, it is hard to imagine how Dane County, known simultaneously as a progressive bastion and home to the worst racial disparities between blacks and whites in the United States, can even consider pouring money into the jail. In 2013, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ Race to Equity Project Report detailed the severity of racial disparities here. Some of the most startling statistics included that 75% of the county’s black children live in poverty, compared to 5% of white children. This is relevant to the jail conversation because many people spend time in jail due to committing crimes related to being impoverished (e.g., theft, drugs, public urination). In 2013, Madison Police Department arrested black people at a rate of 11-1. And countywide, black youth are 15 times more likely to be placed in juvenile detention than their white counterparts. Perhaps one of the most disturbing facts about racial disparities in Dane County pertains to the county jail itself. While Dane County’s black population is about 6-7%, the Dane County Jail black population is around 48%.

In this racial context, the jail has been proposed and opposed. The context has grown increasingly complex in the past several months as a result of a series of national police murders of unarmed black men, followed by a series of non-indictments of the individual officers involved. As a result of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a coalition emerged in Dane County calling themselves Young Gifted and Black (YGB). Since November, YGB has taken to the streets every week to oppose mass incarceration, racist policing, and the building of a new jail, and to support resources for the black community and black-led initiatives. Then, on March 6, 2015, Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny responded to a couple of calls about an individual behaving erratically on Madison’s eastside. Within seconds of being on the scene, Officer Kenny shot and killed 19-year old unarmed black youth, Tony Robinson. For the past week, Madison residents have been in the streets protesting and mourning. The community debate on jail renovations was already long-scheduled. And we intended to go forward. After all, as YGB member Eric Upchurch noted in a YGB press release about the event, “The state violence that leads to mass incarceration of black people is the same state violence that leads a police officer to shoot an unarmed black boy. Our opposition to efforts to renovate the jail is directly connected to our pursuit of justice for Tony Robinson.”

The practice of academic debate has received a lot of attention from rhetoric and argumentation scholars. Some of those scholars, perhaps most notably Gordon Mitchell and those who write about urban debate leagues, have focused on the activist and public importance of academic debate. We have little to no scholarship that addresses the use of debate outside of the academic context. A few articles and conference papers have focused on Malcolm X’s use of debate to confront his adversaries and promote and defend his positions, including the work of Robert Branham. Branham explains that for Malcolm, debate was “a unique and valuable form of public address. His use of debate was a deliberate rhetorical choice, through which he believed that his positions might be advanced most persuasively to the largest possible audience (Branham, 1995). He confronted highly educated and sometimes nationally recognized adversaries in a format that accorded him relatively equal standing and some assurance that his views would receive consideration and response.” This view of Malcolm X is consistent with how McKinnon and I imagine this format in the local community. Each debate will feature a black radical position against a more moderate liberal or progressive position, and the issues addressed will be centered on black experience and voices. The point is to show the nuance of left-leaning politics on issues that are of vital importance to local black communities and to give a legitimizing space to radical black voices. The point is also to show how spaces where activism and deliberation converge do not have to be governed by norms of whiteness and civility. Instead, productive and engaged political spaces can be open to a variety of displays of affect and involvement.

To us, this seems like not only a great way to advance the “Wisconsin Idea” in a time when it is under attack, but also a way to show the significance of rhetoric and public address to contemporary political culture on our most pressing community issues. You can watch the first debate here. The proposition was: Police body cameras are an important part of the solution to the problem of police violence. Stay tuned for more.



Branham, Robert James. “`I was gone on debating’: Malcolm X’s prison debates and public confrontations.” Argumentation & Advocacy, 31, no. 3 (1995): 117-137.

Mitchell, Gordon R. “Pedagogical possibilities for argumentative agency in academic debate.” Argumentation & Advocacy, 35, no. 2 (1998): 41-60.

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The Conservative Logics of Gay Marriage

As I read a local paper, the Oregonian on an early morning flight from Portland to Madison in early March 2014, I came across an op-ed that reflects an increasingly common position that I have to admit still strikes even me (a snarky radical queer) as surprising when publicly stated. A representative from the Young Conservatives of Oregon, Xander Almeida, lamented a recent decision by one of Oregon’s leading gay and lesbian organizations to take the case of gay marriage through the courts instead of letting Oregonians vote on a measure in a popular referendum. While Almeida notes that Oregon approved a ban on same-sex marriage in 2004, and further suggests his worry about popular votes on civil rights matters, he believes that this time it is the right thing to do. He makes this claim based on two reasons. First, Oregonians, in line with the current trend around the United States, will vote for equality. Second, in choosing to take the more expedient route through the courts instead of the slower path of allowing the voice of the people to speak, gay and lesbian activists are adding more fodder to conservative fires against “activist judges” who legislate from their benches.

Almeida clearly notes a strong gesture of alliance that would be possible for gay marriage advocates to offer to conservatives if they followed the methods of democracy and not the courts. What is additionally interesting here is the very boldness of a conservative activist offering advice to a supposedly liberal cause, not in the spirit of sarcasm or snark, but in genuine sincerity. This article is just one example in a current rhetorical explosion of conservatives coming out on the side of gay marriage, in support of military integration of gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and in recognition of violence done to LGBT youth. Why the turn, or is it a turn at all?

In the realm of public discourse, conservative support of LGBT rights has historically been minimal. In fact, usually, the surest way to gain conservative enemies would have been to express support for LGBT rights. Only when pressed due to hypocrisy as in the case of someone like Dick Cheney who has a lesbian daughter, would conservatives admit their moderate support of LGBT people, and perhaps their rights. But, publicly this has changed. Republicans including Utah’s Jon Huntsman, Rob Portman from Ohio, and others have gone on the record affirming gay and lesbian rights. The public shift in rhetoric can, on the one hand, be attributed to the success of the calculated and strategic campaign of the national gay and lesbian rights movement, especially its argument for “marriage equality.”

This public shift could also reflect what queer activists and scholars, including my friend and collaborator Yasmin Nair have long contended: Gay Marriage IS a Conservative Cause.  As Nair argues in her essay of that name, “Nothing that the left, progressives, or liberals have stated in support of gay marriage has ever been anything but a profoundly conservative argument.  Gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry for healthcare?  That simply shores up the power of the neoliberal state, compelling people to marry and take on the burden for their own care, instead of creating, for instance, a system that grants life-saving benefits to everyone, regardless of marital status.  This is a matter of ‘simple equality?’  How is a system that systematically denies those same benefits to single people ever anything but fundamentally unequal?” Nair’s laments highlight the dangers of what Lisa Duggan has called “homonormativity” which describes how many relatively privileged (usually white, middle class, cisgender, US citizen, monogamously-coupled) gays and lesbians exist in a depoliticized realm as consumer citizens who simply want the same rights as straight people with whom they share all those other privileges. This is, in fact, what the infamous gay conservative Andrew Sullivan has argued for since the 1990s: marriage equality is a sure way to domesticate all those unruly queers.

If gay marriage is a conservative cause already, what makes this turn of interest to rhetoric scholars such as myself is that it is an interesting case to highlight the deeply conservative logics that undergird seemingly progressive movements in the United States, the limits of their strategies, and the plethora of questions they are not asking. Instead of registering as a victory, does conservative support of liberal causes like gay marriage suggest entrenched flaws with the approach of the mainstream movement? How will conservative support lead liberals to make even further conservative compromises in order to solidify such support? Who will be further abjected and made vulnerable by this domestication?

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Fasting for (Which) Families: Commonsense Immigration Reform?


On November 12, 2013, immigrant rights, labor, and faith leaders announced an action called “Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship.” As the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) put it, “Leaders committed to a daily fast in front of the U.S. Capitol and at locations across the country to send a clear and visible message to Congress about the moral crisis caused by our country’s broken immigration system and its impact on millions of families.” Fasts are not a new protest strategy, and relying upon family rhetoric is certainly not a new approach in the immigrant rights community. Is there anything unique about this fast, this issue, and this historical moment? As has been acknowledged many times, President Obama has both championed immigration reform, while simultaneously deporting more people than any previous administration in the history of the United States. Immigrants and immigrant rights advocates have angrily challenged Obama for his immigration policies, and for some, it seems that staging a fast in the traditions of King, Chávez and Gandhi is the only way to compel action.

The Fast for Families has drawn national media attention from outlets like Democracy Now! and the Huffington Post, and it has gained support from an array of groups and individuals. Even the Obamas stopped by the fasting tent on the National Mall in Washington, DC to offer support. What is the “clear and visible message” that the fasters are trying to send? According to the Fasters’ Declaration, they fast in order to promote “commonsense immigration reform.” They state, “We will fast and pray until the bonds of families are no longer broken. We will fast and pray until immigration reform is no longer a notion, but a reality. We will fast and pray until citizenship is no longer a dream for 11 million aspiring Americans.” The fasters want the House of Representatives to pass S. 744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” which in June of this year, the Senate approved.

The bill has unsurprisingly stalled in the House of Representatives. Democrats have accused House Speaker John Boehner of preventing the reform from even getting a chance in the House. Boehner has recently signaled that he may be changing his tune, but with a “pathway to citizenship” built into the bill, many Republicans have vowed not to support it. If Republicans hate this bill so much, and immigrant rights advocates are risking death by starving themselves to support it, the bill must be pretty good for immigrants, right?

The bill is complex, and numerous groups have attempted to boil it down to its main parts, including the American Immigration Council, which provided this summary. My personal favorite summary is that provided by the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign, a Chicago-based collective that seeks the end to all deportations, detentions and criminalization of immigrants (they also seek the end of national borders).  Their comprehensive videos in English and Spanish, “Immigration Reform 101,” paint a sobering image of the proposed reform. In brief, S. 744 would provide a pathway to citizenship for only an estimated 7 million of the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. Those who qualify would be eligible for what is called “Registered Provisional Immigrant” (RPI) status. Those who qualify for the DREAM (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, and some agricultural workers would be given a somewhat accelerated pathway toward citizenship (at least 5-10 years after applying for RPI status). These two groups would not have to wait for the so-called “triggers” that must be in place before other people with RPI status can begin the naturalization process. Most undocumented people will not be allowed to apply for naturalization until several militarization (“security”) measures have been successfully put in place and evaluated. Over $46 billion has been proposed to further militarize US national borders, especially the Mexico-US border. If those measures would pass the very ambiguous barometer for success, then that triggers the pathway to naturalization—assuming those who originally qualified haven’t found themselves unemployed, or in some other violation of law that would preclude their qualification. By some estimates, those who qualify after this extended process can expect around a 20-year process before they will be US citizens. For those who don’t qualify, both the four million who are immediately excluded and the others that might find themselves excluded somewhere along the way, there is no hope of every attaining citizenship. Among other provisions, the bill also does a lot to further criminalize future clandestine crossings, creates new categories of temporary visas, and addresses issues such as human trafficking. The bill would turn future migration preferences toward those with desired labor skills and away from family reunification by eliminating some of the family categories that one can currently use for sponsorship (i.e., adult siblings and married offspring).

If S. 744 is what’s being proposed as “commonsense” reform, will families actually be helped? And if the answer to this is, at least in part, no, then what’s the Fast for Families really all about? As Dana Cloud showed in her 1998 essay, “The Rhetoric of Family Values,” “family” and “family values” function as powerful ideographs that have enduring rhetorical power in the US public sphere. In discussing the specific context of the 1990s, she revealed how the use of family values rhetoric positioned successful and middle class black families against the so-called underclass plagued by a culture of poverty. I fear the family rhetoric in the Fast for Families campaign operates similarly—certain members of certain families who do everything right will be worthy of an arduous and extended pathway to citizenship, while others won’t be considered families at all (the campaign’s logo clearly indicates what counts as a family), and the rest, “the unworthy,” will be left behind.

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