A Conversation about Diversity, Race and Political Divisions

With a nation deeply divided politically and ideologically, UVA Engineering continues to promote dialogue by welcoming speakers from a range of perspectives as part of the second-annual Excellence Through Diversity Distinguished Learning Series.

On Thursday, Nov. 30, Ana Navarro visits Grounds to discuss race and diversity in the current public climate. Navarro, a CNN commentator and Republican strategist, has made no secret of her disdain for Donald Trump and the far right wing of her party.

But she sees a viable way forward for public discourse in America. She took time to offer her thoughts about this to UVA Engineering.

Q: What was interesting or compelling to you right now in accepting the invitation to speak at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville? And what’s the primary message you’d like people to take away from your speech?

Charlottesville, obviously because of what happened there this summer, has become symbolic of the cultural war and symbolic of what has gripped America in such a powerful way. To be in the place that was ground zero and felt this was very significant to me.

My talk is about diversity, but I want people to understand that diversity is not just about your race or your creed or ethnic background. Diversity is about respecting people - embracing and respecting people.

Q: In your role as a commentator for CNN and as a public speaker around the country, do you have a master narrative – an overarching message - you are trying to convey to the American public? What is that?

It’s the idea of embracing and accepting diversity of thought. We can disagree without hating each other. Civil debate is healthy. We need to focus on the values that we share, not the politics that divide us. We’ve got to focus less on tribalism and more on being Americans.

Q: Is there any validity to the theory that there’s anti-university sentiment in Washington recently, such as in the proposed tax bills that have included provisions regarding taxes for graduate students and endowments. What role should universities play in this political climate?

I think universities are crucial players in this political climate in that they are the incubators for diversity. It is the first time that young people leave their little microcosms for a larger, more diverse world. It’s truly where people expand their minds, their knowledge and their perspectives of people, and what they know and who they know.

Washington is so dysfunctional right now, I’m not sure they’re for or against universities in particular. What they are is desperate to get some legislative accomplishment under their belts.

I think there’s definitely this concept, this mindset, particularly among the right wing, that universities are breeding grounds for leftist thought, but that is truly narrow-minded and painting things in black and white. Universities should be breeding grounds for thought, period.

Q: Many commentators assert that the defining feature of our public life in America right now is a focus on identity and race. Do you agree with this assessment, and why or why not?

Yes, how can it not be? How can there not be a focus on identity and race, when the president of the United States is using his bully pulpit to divide us through identity and race? I think right now in America there’s a racial and cultural divide. A lot of people feel like the haves and have nots. There are certainly certain ethnic groups, religious groups, racial groups that do not feel included, do not feel represented, and that feel under attack.

Q: Almost a year into the inauguration of a Republic president and the Republican-controlled Congress, what are you hearing and learning from the voting communities and citizens you encounter and with whom you interact?

I’m learning that people are very engaged with what’s going on in politics, very informed, very aware, very awake. They’re also very distressed and anguished and worried about the future of the country.

I think it’s one of the silver linings of one of the 2016 elections, the lesson that a few votes matter and that sitting it out isn’t an option.

Q: What do you think will be the evolution and fate of the Republican party?

I don’t know. Look, Republicans who think like I do - and it feels like we’re on survivor island - are hoping we go back to traditional Republican values; but there’s no doubt that the Republican party today is in Trump’s image.

I think we’re in a real struggle right now for the heart and soul of the Republican party, and I don’t know how it’s going to wind up. Because it seems the intra-party divisions are sometimes more intense and physical than the ones between the parties.