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Should Obama tackle the race issue again?

From Ed Hornick, CNN
President Obama has discussed race in America on several occasions.
President Obama has discussed race in America on several occasions.
  • Poll finds that Obama has done a good job at improving race relations
  • Race issues explored after Senate Majority Leader's 'Negro' comment
  • President Obama is trying to push the issues behind him
  • African-American scholar argues that Obama needs to open the discussion again

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama is is trying to put the racially insensitive remarks by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid behind him but some African-American leaders argue he is missing a major chance to begin an honest discussion about race in the United States.

"I think that he [Obama] could use this moment as a teachable moment, to educate the nation about some deep underlying tensions, both within African-American communities and beyond," said Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University.

The Reid controversy is centered on remarks published in the book "Game Change," by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, which cites Reid as saying in 2008 that Obama could succeed as a black candidate partly because of his "light-skinned" appearance and because he speaks "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

Reid apologized to Obama after excerpts from the book were released and Obama said he considered the matter closed.

Obama defended Reid on Monday in an interview at the White House with CNN political contributor Roland Martin.

"For him to have used some inartful language in trying to praise me, and for people to try to make hay out of that, makes absolutely no sense," Obama said in an interview taped Monday for TV One.

Many believe that Obama is uniquely suited to take on the issue: He's biracial, a strong communicator and has the bully pulpit of the presidency.

Video: Reid comment: What's the fuss?
Video: Obama not talking race
Interactive: Words failed them

Other presidents in recent history, such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have discussed issues surrounding race.

In 1998, Clinton participated in a panel discussion on PBS.

Clinton told moderator Jim Lehrer that he has tried to emphasize that America is becoming a "multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, and therefore it will be more important both to understand the differences and identify the common values that hold us together as a country."

Clinton was well received by the panel -- and has enjoyed the support from many in the African-American community throughout his presidency.

In a speech to the NAACP in 2006, Bush defended his record on domestic issues -- most notably, his response to Hurricane Katrina. He was publicly criticized for what many said was the government's failed efforts to aide the hurricane-devastated city of New Orleans, Louisiana, which had a large population of African-Americans.

Bush received a mixed response from the NAACP crowd: Some saw his speech as a bridge-building effort; others heckled the president during the speech.

To Obama's credit, supporters point out that he delivered a major speech on race relations -- and further opened the race dialogue after controversy erupted in July over the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry "Skip" Gates, an African-American, at his home by a white police officer for disorderly conduct. The charges were later dropped.

In the end, the issue resulted in a happy hour at the White House -- with the president holding a so-called "beer summit" with both Gates and the officer.

And with a hefty agenda ahead of him -- namely getting health care reform passed -- the issue of race could hijack the administration's plans.

"He had to go have a beer summit, which diverted attention, as this is doing, from the agenda that he needs to get passed," said Gloria Borger, CNN senior political analyst.

Dyson believes, though, the issue of race is his "Achilles' heel" and that a dialogue on race -- from the use of the word "Negro" to the light skin versus dark skin debate -- should be explored.

But not everyone in the African-American community, though, wants to have the race dialogue again.

"The problem with having a conversation about race is that it's so superficial," said Donna Brazile, Democratic strategist and CNN contributor, who is African-American. "We don't really talk about race. We don't have the words that would allow us to have a real honest dialogue."

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey from late December indicated that African-Americans are more optimistic about race relations, but less than one in five believe this is a new era of race relations.

Fifty-one percent of African-Americans said Obama's presidency has brought some improvement in race relations in the United States, but only 18 percent feel it's the start of a new era, the poll found. Another 23 percent said they've seen a real change in race relations over the past 11 months and 7 percent say things have gotten worse.

Read more on the poll

The survey indicated that three-quarters of blacks believe race relations will improve eventually, which is up from 49 percent of blacks who felt that way a year before Obama was elected.

The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll was conducted December 16-20, with 1,160 adult Americans, including 259 African-Americans and 786 whites, questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points and plus or minus six percentage points for the African-Americans sample.

While some African-American leaders called Reid's comments unfortunate, others said he was simply speaking the truth.

"And 99 percent of people in this country who heard that probably readily understood what he meant, and the question is, how can we get beyond some of this vicious name calling and get to some of the deeper issues?" Dyson said.

In an article entitled "Harry Reid Was Right"on the, Peter Beinart explored the issue and noted that his words were nothing research hasn't already proven.

"But how do we know that this particular species of racism informs people's view of Obama? Because in 2009, Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago, Emily Balcetis of New York University and Nicole Mead of Tilburg University in the Netherlands proved it."

In the study, Beinart said they showed three pictures of Obama -- one lightened, one darkened and one untouched -- to those in favor of voting for then-Sen. Obama, and those who were unlikely to vote for him.

"The Obama voters were significantly more likely to claim that the lightened photo was the real one," Beinart said. "The McCain voters were more likely to claim that the darkened photo was."

He admits, though, that the country still needs to have a dialogue on race.

"But it [race relations] should be publicly discussed. Because amid the triumphalism that has followed Barack Obama's election -- the insistence, particularly on the right, that his election proves that racism has all but died out -- it is worth remembering that while Obama's election constitutes racial progress, it is also, peculiarly, testament to how far America still has to go."

CNN's Suzanne Malveau contributed to this report.