Reid has perhaps gotten more play for his use of the word "negro" showing how old he is than for his remarks on skin color. Or not, perhaps both, but the Daily Show last night featured the first more than the second. Anyway, Reid was doing something unwise in politics--speaking the truth. Sociologists have spent much effort seeking to understand not just race but the darkness of skin. Shankar Vedantam posted a very clear op-ed today summarizing much of the work in this area: that light skin color leads to more favored outcomes than dark skin color. Indeed, politicians understand this and run ads linking opponents to folks with darker skin color.
To be clear, this dynamic is not unique to America's race relations, as folks in India use skin-lightening products as well. What this does show is that the politics of race can be far more complex than we often think. I have always regretted not taking more sociology as an undergrad, and I have yet another reason to do so.