Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters today that he wants to move on from his controversial comments about then-Sen. Barack Obama, but his words have opened a discussion about racial attitudes in America and how African Americans are viewed and judged.
According to a newly published book about the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, "Game Change," by Time magazine reporter Mark Halperin and New York magazine writer John Heilemann, the Nevada Democrat called Obama "a 'light-skinned' black man 'with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.'"
Today, Reid appeared contrite and eager to move forward.
"I've apologized to the president, I've apologized to everyone that [can hear] the sound of my voice, I could have used a better choice of words," Reid told reporters at a power plant in Apex, Nev.
"This is a good man who's always been on the right side of history," Obama said in an interview with CNN. "For him to have used some in-artful language in trying to praise me, and for people to try to make hay out of that makes absolutely no sense."
Reid's 2008 comments have sparked an intense political debate inside Washington. Democrats have defended the majority leader and excused his statement as a poor choice of words, while Republicans are calling it a double standard and say Reid should step down.
But Reid's comments have prompted another discussion, one that is focused on what Reid actually said, rather than the politics – was the senator right?
Many prominent African Americans who spoke to ABC News today were offended by Reid's use of the word "Negro." But they also said his observation was true – that Americans in general find lighter-skinned African Americans more socially acceptable than those with darker skin, especially if they speak eloquently.
"As an African American who is light skinned with so called curly hair, that represents my proximity to white culture. I am treated far differently than African American people with natural hair, and darker skin," said Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University.
Retired Gen. Colin Powell has said that among the reasons for his success among whites are that "I speak reasonably well, like a white person" and "I aren't that black."
There is empirical evidence that both Dyson and Powell are right. Numerous studies indicate that lighter skinned blacks are more likely than dark skinned blacks to be elected to public office and be hired for jobs.
A study by Harvard's Jennifer Hochschild and the University of Virginia's Vesla Weaver, "The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order," found that in looking at all African Americans elected to the House, Senate or governor's office since 1865, "light-skinned blacks have always been considerably overrepresented and dark-skinned blacks dramatically underrepresented as elected officials."
Matthew Harrison, a professor at the University of Georgia, looked at the question of hiring prejudices when it came to African Americans.
In his study, "Colorism in the Job Selection Process: Are There Preferential Differences Within the Black Race?" Harrison found that dark-skinned African Americans faced a distinct disadvantage when applying for jobs, compared to lighter-skinned applicants.