Reid's Racial Remark: Some Truth to It?

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.

On Saturday, President Obama said that as far as he was concerned "the book is closed." Today Obama said Reid's apology was enough for him.

"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.

Over 200 students were presented photographs matched to resumes and were asked to rate the applicants on the likelihood that they would hire the candidate. Light-skinned males with just a bachelor's degree on average rated hire overall than a dark-skinned male with an MBA.

The study's conclusion? "Skin color is more salient and regarded more highly than one's educational background and prior work experience."

A Tufts University study found that both blacks and whites associate darker skinner blacks with "poverty, aggressiveness, lack of intelligence, lack of education, and unattractiveness."

Dyson says the differentiation goes back to the days of slavery in America.

"The reason black people who are lighter, like myself, like President Obama, are seen as more acceptable is because during slavery when white slave masters mated with black women, they produced children, offspring, biracial children," he told ABC News. "Those children were closer to the master – literally and metaphorically. And they were getting better treatment."

Doug Wilder, the first African American elected as a governor in the United States, said Reid's comments were "reprehensible and totally uncalled for," and the sentiment he expressed about light skin versus dark skin "should've gone out with the field hand, house hand mentality that was exercised during slavery."

"The recipe that Harry Reid describes would mean that everyone had to have a certain voice or to have a certain color, well, you certainly couldn't apply that to his wife," Wilder said of first lady Michelle Obama.

Dyson said that in all of the punditry and chatter about whether Reid should resign, the nation missed a major opportunity to have a serious discussion about racial attitudes.

Lani Guinier, professor at Harvard Law School, agreed.

"When people step into the conversation to try and address some aspects of this very delicate, very difficult subject, then we punish them for the choice of words that they use rather than for whether what they're saying suggests -- sheds some light on a problem that we have in ignoring at our peril," Guinier said.

Guinier called Reid's comments "an unfortunate truth."

"We are talking about having a racial problem that is an American dilemma that we ignore at our peril," she said.

Dyson said that discussion needs to start at the top – and he took Obama to task for what he said was a "lack of courage" to talk about race.

"He is loathe to address the issue of race. Barack Obama runs from race like most black men run from the cops," Dyson said. "He rarely addresses race unless he is forced to. He doesn't bring it up in his own context unless it's crisis-driven.

Dyson said he believes Obama is disinclined to wade into sensitive racial issues because he doesn't want to be "pigeon-holed or ghetto-ized as the black president for the black issues."

"But there's a lot of room between being ghetto-ized on the one hand and never speaking about race on the other hand," Dyson said.

ABC News' Toni Wilson, Stephanie Z. Smith and Sunlen Miller contributed to this story.