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The Difference That Difference Makes

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For years, America has struggled with difference, especially when it comes to the tables of power. While there have always been those who eschew the value of diversity, the majority of Americans have come to appreciate our nation's unique distinction as the world's melting pot. Yet when it comes to positions of influence, difference has not been as readily embraced. The nomination of Judge Sotomayor has forced us to not only question our nation's commitment to diversity, but also its root justification: should those of us who represent a variance to the norm of white men be there because it is fair, or because there is intrinsic, tangible value in diversifying our ranks?

From Sunday morning talk shows to the blogosphere, Sotomayor has come under intense fire for her statements that "our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions" and that such diversity would enrich the decision making of the Court. There are two issues at play here: is it possible to divorce oneself from personal identity and lived experience; and does diversity matter?

Her critics, such as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, contend that a judge should leave difference behind to rule fairly. Yet do Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justice Scalia leave their Catholicism behind when ruling on abortion? Didn't Justice Alito say that when immigrants come before him on the bench, that he sees his father? While impartiality is the desired domain of those who judge, we ultimately cannot separate ourselves from our life experiences and beliefs - and the current Court is certainly a shining example of that.

The other side of the critic's coin is a deep discomfort with the argument that difference is inherently good. I'd like to believe that this position is not born of intolerance, but rather a lack of understanding that diversity in people translates into diversity of thought and perspective - the launching pad for innovation, ingenuity, and the foundation of democracy.

In the midst of punditry and political banter, the facts have been largely ignored. Scholars such as Scott Page at the University of Michigan and Lu Hong of Loyola University have found that diverse groups tend to outperform their homogeneous counterparts despite equal abilities. More surprisingly, under the right conditions, a group of intelligent problem-solvers chosen completely at random will likely outperform a homogeneous group of the very best of their field. These studies suggest that companies and governments should look toward diversity not only to promote fairness, but for strategic advantage as well.

In light of these findings, why are we trying to make Sotomayor strip herself of her difference that could, in fact, make all the difference? Instead, we should be looking to increase the diversity among those making decisions - swelling our leadership with new perspectives, and bringing true representation to our institutions and halls of power.

When we think of the increasingly complex decisions this Supreme Court will tackle, do we not want the most varied group possible lending their diversity of thought and perspective? Race and gender are not strict determinants of how a judge will rule, and Sotomayor is not an exception to that fact. Rather, her experience of a broader world would add wisdom and perspective and undoubtedly result in a unique take on complex issues. The soundest decisions are always made when all angles are approached, when dissent is encouraged, and when all viewpoints are considered. Why on earth would we want a narrow point of view - particularly in an era when our nation and world are ever-more diverse?

In a few decades, white people will become a minority in this country, and women already form a majority. We will need all of the experience we can get as we govern and grow a new America, and position ourselves to compete on the global stage with the ingenuity born of an increasingly diverse and just society. It's time to stop attacking Sotomayor for not only her difference, but for her courage in recognizing it, and embrace her diversity for the future it represents and the wisdom it will bring to our highest bench.