WASHINGTON – When is it OK to raise race in politics? Who -- if anyone -- is entitled to suggest that an African-American is "acting like he's white"?
The Rev. Jesse Jackson may have done it successfully — or at least with no lasting damage — last week when he reportedly said exactly that about Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama.
According to The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Jackson made his remark during an interview about the "Jena 6" case, in which six black students were charged with various crimes in connection with the beating of a white schoolmate.
Thousands of people arrived in Jena, La., last week to protest what they considered a case of racial discrimination against the six students, who they said were treated more harshly than their white counterparts and were provoked when nooses were found hanging in a schoolyard.
After his remarks were reported, Jackson said the newspaper had misinterpreted him. "I have not in any way engaged in the degrees of blackness debate," he said in a TV interview.
The State said it quoted Jackson correctly in its interview of the civil rights leader.
Several public figures have found themselves in trouble in the last year after uttering racially charged words, including radio talk show host Don Imus, who was fired for referring to the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos"; comedian Michael Richards; who shouted the "n-word" repeatedly at an audience member during a comedy club onstage meltdown, and New York Knicks President Isiah Thomas, who said in a sexual harassment suit that it is OK for a black man to call a black woman a "bitch," but he would be offended if a white man said it.
But Jackson's purported comment about Obama hasn't received the same overwhelming reaction among black political observers.
"If he said it, it's wrong to say that," the Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson told FOX News. Richardson is chairman of the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, which was heavily critical of Imus' comments in the lead-up to his firing.
But Richardson stopped short of calling Jackson's comment racist, and when asked if the National Action Network would press Jackson as it pressed Imus, Richardson said, "It's easy to make simplistic comparisons" between the situations, but said they are not comparable and have "contextual nuances."
The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a talk show host and president of Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, said there is a racial element to Jackson's comments.
"It is bad for business when [blacks] attack black folks for being wrong, when they correct black Americans," Peterson said. But he added: "Can you imagine what would have happened had a white man, or a white Republican, said that Barack Obama is not black enough? They would want to burn down America."
University of Maryland government and politics professor Ron Walters offered a third opinion. In a phone interview with FOXNews.com, he said Jackson's comments support his conclusion that Obama faces a difficult road in garnering support among blacks while his core constituency remains largely white.
"He has this little dance, a difficult dance, of when these racial issues arise, how to treat them," Walters said of Obama. "What he's been trying to do is to neutralize" racial issues, and divert attention away from racial matters. Walters pointed to Obama's comments on the Jena case and on Hurricane Katrina.
As to the Jena case, Obama last week said: "Outrage over an injustice like the Jena 6 case isn't a matter of black and white. It's a matter of right and wrong. We should stand as one nation in opposition to this and any injustice. That's why I've previously spoken out and demanded fairness in the Jena 6 case."
Earlier this year, Obama discussed the effects of Hurricane Katrina, saying: "This administration was color blind in its incompetence.... But, everyone here knows that the disaster and the poverty happened long before the hurricane hit."
Walters said the statements show Obama's reluctance to address race head-on, and Jackson's comments — if he said them — dovetail with that notion.
"He's handling [the Jena case] as though he were a politician who's trying not to alienate most of his constituency, who happen to be white," Walters said. At the same time Obama is trying to build more trust among African-American voters, a majority of whom currently are supporting Hillary Clinton, according to most polls.
Obama's campaign, however, also has pointed to other recent comments he's made on the Jena case, including this statement from Sept. 10: "When nooses are being hung in high schools in the 21st century, it's a tragedy. It shows that we still have a lot of work to do as a nation to heal our racial tensions. This isn't just Jena's problem; it's America's problem."
Walters said another reason Jackson's comments haven't become a major issue, at least in the black community, is because the question of "is he black enough" or "is he white enough" is a legitimate question. If it means a voter is trying to compare Obama to his or her own cultural experience, it is a perfectly natural action in deciding for whom someone will vote, he said.
Walters believes Jackson's comments will soon fade into the background.
"Jesse Jackson here is not the story. It is Barack Obama, and why he continues to try and neutralize these issues," Walters said.