Joe Miller’s Cross-X

By Anna Foote

We live in a racist city.

“It’s part of the fabric of the city. And in my estimation it’s the essential issue of America,” says KC resident Joe Miller, author of the critically acclaimed new book Cross-X. “There are a lot of ways to approach America, but to me the most insightful is through race.”

Cross-X follows Kansas City’s Central High School all-black debate squad as they compete on the mostly-white regional and national circuits. Team members—who find a good deal of success along the way—turn the argument onto the debate community itself, charging it with elitism.

By the early 2000s, high school debate was about speed reading and reciting cases created by college students or professionals, a style that Central debaters claimed favored private-school competitors. Students from Central decided to challenge the notion that faster was better, following the argument of University of Louisville debaters.

“These kids know that things are unfair,” Miller says, “and if you give them a chance to stand up for something, they want to.”

But does what six or eight high school students say about debate matter to Kansas City? Or to the country? It does, Miller says, because debate is more than a game played out on weekends.

“Debate is also a central component to democracy,” he says. “You’re learning the tools of political power. You’re learning persuasion. You’re learning how to advocate for something and to frame your advocacy in a way that will connect with other people and what their interests are.”

In other words, debate is forming future policy leaders—of our city and of our country.

And, Miller says, the Central debate program is cultivating leaders our city desperately needs. 

“Kansas City is a divided city; just like so many cities in the country are,” he says. “There have—since the civil rights movement—been a lot of blacks who have moved into the middle class and have integrated the suburbs to a degree. There’s still an enormous black underclass. The city is still really very divided and unequal. And we’re all part of that. If you live on the white side of that divide you might not really even notice it much. But when you live on the black side of that divide, you really see it. It’s just so apparent; it’s so much a part of the definition of everything.”

Miller says that one key to bridging the racial gap is a willingness by whites to keep an open mind.

When beginning to report on Central, he says, “I came in understanding that blacks would have a different perspective of things than I would. Whites have to be open to think that just about anything you assume is wrong in our country might look completely different from the other side. And things are completely different from the other side.”

That openness led Miller to get involved with the Central debate team. In addition to reporting on it, he became an assistant coach. He is still active with the team today, even while he works on a new book about an inner-city, multi-racial Pentecostal megachurch.

Miller encourages people who are interested in narrowing Kansas City’s racial divide to get active in inner city schools. He thinks almost any interest brought to a school will find three or four students who are willing to stick around, have a good time and learn.

And three or four can make a difference.

“It’s perfectly doable,” he says. “There are schools throughout Kansas City that would be eager to have people come in and help out with debate or with any kind of activities.”

Go to Joe Miller’s blog.

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