Founding Mission

"To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.

But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate."

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Purpose of Education, The Maroon Tiger, 1947


The Social Justice Debates was founded in 2016 by Morehouse College and The George Washington University as The Derrick Bell Debates to promote productive public dialogue, engagement, and service on social justice topics. The success of this initial program encouraged the creation of an annual series, the Social Justice Debates. 

“Education leads to enlightenment. Enlightenment opens the way to empathy. Empathy foreshadows reform.” This program would not have been possible without the inspiration, mentoring, teaching, and scholarship of Professor Derrick A. Bell Jr. (1930-2011).


2017-2018 Social Justice Debates Selected Scholar: Angela Davis.

About: The 2017-2018 Social Justice Debates featured two tournaments held at Morehouse College and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The series included a partnership with the National Association of African-American Honors Programs that engaged eight Historically Black Colleges and Universities as competitors at the Morehouse competition.

Topic: The United States should prioritize transformative justice for violent offenders over other models of criminal justice.

Topic Statement: "If jails and prisons are to be abolished, then what will replace them? This is the puzzling question that often interrupts further consideration of the prospects for abolition .... The first step ... [is] ... to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system..... An abolitionist approach ... require[s] us to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions ... and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance ... Many organizations and individuals both in the United States and other countries offer alternative modes of making justice. In limited instances, some governments have attempted to implement alternatives that range from conflict resolution to restorative or reparative justice.... There is a growing body of literature on reshaping systems of justice around strategies of reparation, rather than retribution, as well as a growing body of experiential evidence of the advantages of these approaches to justice and of the democratic possibilities they promise." 

- Angela Davis,  Are Prisons Obsolete?

In her seminal work on prison abolition, “Are Prisons Obsolete?,” Angela Davis rejects the notion there is a single alternative to jails and prisons and calls instead for scholarship imagining a constellation of strategies that includes a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance. The 2017 Social Justice Debates aspire to answer Davis’s call for scholarship by scrutinizing the question of whether prioritizing transformative justice for violent offenders might serve as one important element of a larger constellation of strategies for prison abolition.

Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, transformative justice is often described as an "extension" of restorative justice that goes beyond restoring injured stakeholders to transforming all parties involved for the better. Specifically, restorative justice generally includes at least two elements: (1) all injured stakeholders have an opportunity to discuss how they have been affected and to help decide what should be done to repair the harm; and (2) rather than being punished, offenders are asked to acknowledge their crime and attempt to atone for it. Transformative justice adds to this restorative justice framework by engaging communities to transform societal structures, provide victims with answers for why they were victimized, provide restitution, and promote public peace and order.

During the SJD affirmative teams will be expected to broadly defend the prioritization of transformative justice (as defined above) over other models of criminal justice. This includes defending the desirability of seeking decarceration alternatives for a substantial majority of violent offenders. Judges will be instructed that negative teams may defend either the status quo or propose a competing model of criminal justice and argue this competing model is superior to transformative justice.

Teams are asked to avoid focusing debates on extreme examples such as offenders who have been confirmed to be serial killers or serial child predators. Although such examples also pose challenges for prison abolition scholarship, they likely require different solutions than those suited for the more common violent offenses that are the focus of the SJD.

2017-18 U.S. National Champions: The George Washington University

2016-2017 Social Justice Debates Selected Scholar: Founded as the Derrick Bell Debates, the 2016-2017 Social Justice Debates Selected Scholar was Professor Derrick A. Bell Jr.

About: The 2016-2017 Social Justice Debates featured two tournaments held at Morehouse College and The George Washington University.

Topic: Social justice movements should adopt interest convergence as their primary organizing principle when developing strategies to promote criminal justice reform.

Topic Statement: The late Professor Derrick Bell is deemed by many to be the “godfather” of critical race scholarship. Professor Bell’s scholarship, in part, explored a social justice theory referred to as “interest convergence,” which posits that people holding political, social and economic power will support social justice for minority groups only when they understand and see that there is something in it for them; i.e., when there is a perception of “convergence”
between the interests of the dominant group and social justice. Most notably, Professor Bell
asserted that the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education was motivated
more by a desire among U.S. leaders to promote a positive image of the U.S. to the world
during the height of the cold war than by a genuine interest in social justice.

The Derrick Bell Debates topic asks debaters to grapple with the question of whether social justice movements should adopt interest convergence as their primary organizing principle when developing strategies to promote social justice. In other words, in a world of limited time, media
exposure, and resources, social justice movements often have to choose one message or set
of tactics over others, which raises the question of which messages and tactics should
receive priority. The topic asks whether, in cases involving such trade-offs, social justice
movements should prioritize tactics that promote interest convergence (or a perception
thereof) as a means of promoting criminal justice reform over other tactics as a general

2016-17 U.S. National Champions: Morehouse College