Tanner Colby has a strange Slate piece arguing that affirmative action doesn’t work. In fairness, he’s not exactly saying that it doesn’t work — “millions of people do well under affirmative action” — but rather that it’s not “an answer to economic discrimination and structural inequality.” This qualification has the advantage of being more accurate, but the disadvantage of countering an argument that for all intents and purposes nobody has ever made. Who thinks that affirmative action was a policy that could completely eliminate structural racial and economical inequalities, as opposed to something that could marginally alleviate them?
Inevitably, this leads to the most essential aspect of any centrist contrarian policy argument, the ol’ “proposed grand bargain that can’t be enforced with other parties that don’t exist”:
Right now, the Democratic party and the racial justice movement are sitting on a junk heap of racial preference programs that aren’t doing anyone much good, and they lack the substantive programs they need: a true, New Deal–style reformation that repairs the infrastructure of our cities, ends mass incarceration, provides access to early education and paid family leave and job training and other programs that put all of black America on more solid footing. Since Republicans seem to want affirmative action gone so badly, if it were me, I’d be out horse trading. Just as the Obama administration is letting Washington and Colorado opt out of federal marijuana prohibition, let state and local governments opt out of affirmative action mandates, but only in exchange for opting in on universal pre-K and other things that working families actually need.
Yes, what a great idea! While we’re at it, in exchange for eliminating affirmative action, we should also get a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, single payer, and a median Supreme Court justice who can’t be to the right of Pam Karlan.*
To state the obvious, the conservatives who want affirmative action gone so badly they’d embark on a massive jobs and education program in exchange for getting rid of it don’t exist. Any state government that would enact any of these policies could enact them while maintaining affirmative action. Considering liberal policies that might be more effective on net than affirmative action is an interesting parlor game, but in the context of American politics it’s no more than that. In the context of federal policy, the argument is as useless as the “we should oppose the ACA because policy x that has no chance of being enacted by the United States Congress is better” silliness. What you will actually get in exchange for eliminating affirmative action is “nothing.” Universal pre-K and jobs programs are good idea on their own merits, and they should be defended as such. But using them to attack affirmative action is silly and counterproductive. These kinds of hypothetical grand bargains aren’t how politics actually works.
*And as Sly notes in comments, arguing that we need more “New Deal style” economic programs to combat racial inequality represents a rather remarkable ignorance of history, which helps to make it clear why he thinks massively difficult policy changes can be enacted as a matter of simple “horse trading.”