Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist, is among my favorite columnists. I was overjoyed when he was recently awarded a richly deserved Pulitzer Prize for his work.
Robinson's fluid style is a pleasure to read. I'd probably follow every word of a column about his mother's favorite lasagna recipe just to enjoy his prose. He is also able to create a seamless mix of deep intelligence and personal, emotional understanding. Many columnists are as smart as they need to be, but Robinson brings a rare quality to his writing: wisdom.
There's another factor that adds to Robinson's importance in the national discussion. He's African American. That doesn't make him any wiser, and it doesn't make his opinions any more correct than the opinions of other writers. But in a field dominated by people with European heritages, his writing adds much needed diversity to the conversation. The value of his perspective is increased by its scarcity.
This has been said so many time, it sounds like a meaningless cliché, but it's absolutely true: Part of America's greatness is our diversity. We can approach the problems and challenges that face us — social, political and scientific — from more angles than any other country in the world, because we contain the world within our borders. When we bring the strengths of all our cultural traditions to bear, we can, and often do, arrive at solutions that make us the envy of other nations.
But for us to use our diversity to its greatest advantage, every group must have a place at the table.
In a recent Robinson column about the Senatorial hearings on Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two exceptional people.
I consider Robinson to be a "wise African American." When his voice is added to other wise voices from other races and ethnic groups, we have a better chance of arriving at a complete understanding of an issue. In the same way, a "wise Latina" will be an invaluable voice on the Supreme Court. Her background will allow her to see things from a different perspective than the other Justices, which will add depth and richness to their discussions. Most likely, other Justices will perceive things she misses because they are white, or black, or Jewish, or male. And that's just the point. The more of America represented on the court, the more likely justice will prevail.
Sotomayor isn't the only prospective Justice to say her background will be a factor in her decisions, but unlike others, she has been condemned for lacking judicial objectivity. As Robinson reminds us in his column, people seem to think "it is irrelevant if Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. talks about the impact of his background as the son of Italian immigrants on his rulings — as he did at his confirmation hearings — but unforgivable for Sotomayor to mention that her Puerto Rican family history might be relevant to her work."
I applaud Alito's honesty in admitting that his background helps shape his views as a Justice. But it is hypocritical for his supporters to consider the same admission from a woman with Puerto Rican ancestry to be reason to vote against her confirmation.
Assuming Sotomayor is qualified for the job – and everything about her vast legal experience and her decisions indicate she is – her personal background will be an asset to the court, not a liability.
As Robinson wrote, "The nation continues to take major steps toward fulfilling the promise of its noblest ideals. Barack Obama is our first African American president. Sonia Sotomayor would be only the third woman, and the third member of a minority group, to serve on the nation's highest court." We are a stronger nation as we move toward greater inclusion and take the greatest advantage of our rich and diverse heritage.
Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.