I have a radical theory: If you never address white paranoia, class-based Affirmative Action is doomed. What Chait isn't seeing (and I submit this with much respect, because I am a fan) is that racism poisons everything. The War on Poverty programs were also class-based, but that didn't stop white racists from demonizing these programs a handouts to Negroes. Welfare supported more white people than black, but that didn't stop people from turning poor black women into welfare queens. The theory of class-based Affirmative Action as "great politics" rest on a foundation which black folks have always found wanting--the ability of crucial swaths of white people to not cut off their nose to spite their face. But, in regards to race, this country entire history is based on white people cutting off their nose to spite their face.
In my previous "lash" post, I noted that the term "backlash" is somewhat of a misnomer -- it acts as if the racist White response was a reaction to a particularly policy, differentiable from previous White behavior that was...well, every bit as hostile and racist. The default setting in America -- regardless of what policies we choose or how much or little the White power structure agrees to bend to Black demands -- is for racism to be produced, albeit at varying levels. The trick is figuring out how to produce anti-racism -- and that's something that we've yet to bottle.
I support class-based affirmative action, but only in tandem with race-based AA, because I think they are separate sources of disadvantage that need to be remedied separately. Nonetheless, I have to admit I figured that replacing racial affirmative action with a class-based system would have at least diffused White anger on the issue, and would still accomplish some good given the disproportionate placement of people of color in the ranks of the economic underclass. Hell, that was even an argument the replacement advocates made themselves: class-based affirmative action would still primarily help people of color, so what's the fuss?
But as Coates reminds us, even programs which primarily help Whites (such as welfare) will engender White opposition and "backlash" if they are perceived to be aiding Black people. And perhaps no program has more indelibly been associated with "aiding undeserving Blacks while stomping on the dreams of hardworking Whites" than affirmative action.
I've noted before how racist ideology in America has proven itself to be incredibly mutable -- it can adapt itself to nearly any change in environment, changing its justifications and rationalizations without a hitch. If affirmative action switches from a race to class basis, and it still results in any meaningful assistance being given to Black students, expect the educational equivalent of "welfare queens" to pop up. It's a prediction that's never failed in the past.