Racial Referee? Critics Charge President Obama With Playing Favorites

Harry Reid's comments have stirred up a new national debate on race.

Jan. 12, 2010— -- President Obama has been thrust into the role of racial referee amid reports of Sen. Harry Reid's remarks about his skin color, prompting some critics to question whether the president is playing favorites.

Obama was quick to forgive Reid after excerpts from a new book, "Game Change," emerged reporting that the Nevada Democrat called Obama "a 'light-skinned' black man 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.'"

In an interview with TV One, Obama said, "This is a good man who's always been on the right side of history. For him to have used some unartful language in trying to praise me, and for people to try to make hay out of that makes absolutely no sense."

The president was also quick to disregard a 2007 comment by Joe Biden, who told the New York Observer, "You've got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean."

In contrast, Obama was harshly critical of radio host Don Imus' comment about the Rutgers women's basketball team. Obama, who was then senator, told ABC News' Jake Tapper in April 2007 that NBC should fire Imus for his "nappy-headed hos" reference to the team, a comment for which Imus apologized profusely.

"I understand MSNBC has suspended Mr. Imus," Obama told ABC News, "but I would also say that there's nobody on my staff who would still be working for me if they made a comment like that about anybody of any ethnic group. And I would hope that NBC ends up having that same attitude."

He also helped stir up a national debate about race last year when he jumped into the middle of the debate about whether Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley's arrest of renowned Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was a case of racial profiling.

"The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home," Obama said in July. "What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact."

Critics Chide President Obama's Response to Harry Reid's Remarks

Obama also called for the resignation of then-Senate Majority Republican Leader Trent Lott, who lavished praise on his home state of Mississippi for supporting Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign in 1948.

As a result, some African-Americans are taking aim at what they perceive as a double-standard, pointing to the Reid case.

"It's a very sad day that the president, because of political expediency, is giving a pass to bigotry, racism and just unadulterated ignorance," syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams said. "The president is showing no backbone and leadership. He's giving a pass to racism because he needs Reid to push his policies."

If Reid were a Republican, Williams said, the president "would have spared no time sending out a lynch mob."

Others echoed similar remarks.

"I think that the president of the United States has to stop having a lack of courage when it comes to the issue of race," said Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University. "He is loathe to address the issue of race. Barack Obama runs from race like most black men run from the cops."

But other scholars said Obama is doing a good job handling the very sensitive job of racial arbitration.

"So I think Obama takes these statements one at a time and looks at the substance of them, and decides whether or not it's worth getting involved," said Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Page has said Obama may be seen as a "post-racial president," but he's not post-racism, a sentiment echoed by other scholars.

"Race is a serious problem," said Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School. "We are not post-racial. We are not racist in the same way that the United States might have been years ago, but race is an important sociological, economic and social fact."

One person Obama has refrained from commenting on is former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who told Esquire he's "blacker than Barack Obama."

"It's such a cynical business, and most of the people in the business are full of s**t and phonies, but I was real, man -- and am real," the ousted governor told the magazine. "This guy, he was catapulted in on hope and change, what we hope the guy is. What the f**k? Everything he's saying's on the teleprompter. I'm blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived. I saw it all growing up."

Blagojevich later apologized for what he called "stupid comments."

As for Reid, he has said he wants to move beyond the remark and is "not going to dwell on this anymore.

"We have a lot of work to do," Reid said Monday. "I'll continue to do my very best for the people of Nevada and this country. I'm not going to dwell on this anymore. It's in the book, and I've made all the statements I'm going to."

But even if this issue simmers down, it is unlikely to be the last time Obama will be called on to play the part of the referee.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., became Monday the first Democratic senator to openly criticize Reid's comments. He told ABC affiliate WISN that the Senate majority leader's comments on Obama's race are "racially insensitive"

Today, a spokesman for the senator told ABC News that Feingold has informed Reid that he has his support to remain majority leader.

ABC News' David Chalian, Jake Tapper and Karen Travers contributed to this report.