At least one black activist leader was surprised when President Obama criticized a Cambridge, Mass., cop for "stupidly" arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr. and suggesting that minorities are often singled out and stopped by police.
"Have some people wanted him to bring this up sooner?" asked civil rights activist, the Rev. Al Sharpton. "Of course, we have. But the timing had to be right. He had the courage to take a position at a time when he knows some people will disagree."
"If he hadn't addressed it, it would have looked like he was ducking. I was surprised he said what he said, because his words brought the conversation to a new level," Sharpton said.
Although Obama has been vocal on past civil rights issues, he largely avoided race during the presidential campaign except for a singular speech he gave on the issue after his pastor was found to have made anti-American statements.
"No one wants to talk about race," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and ABC News consultant. "He [Obama] does not inject race into the conversation regularly because it clears the room. There are designated times, like Martin Luther King Jr. Day or when we have a large gathering of black folks, like at the NAACP recently, but that's about it."
"In this case, he was asked a question directly, and he answered it honestly," she added.
Taking the final question at an hour-long press conference devoted to health care, Obama weighed in on the Gates case, implying that the black scholar should never have been arrested once cops established he lived in the home they thought he was trying to burglarize.
"I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home," Obama said.
The president continued by saying, "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."
Some observers questioned whether the president should have so strongly backed Gates, a longtime friend, over the police who arrested him without fully knowing exactly what took place between the professor and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley.
George Stephanopoulos, ABC News' senior Washington correspondent, said Obama "crossed the line when he said the police acted stupidly."
"I think he was doing fine up until that point where he said the police acted stupidly. [Those were] the most vivid words of the press conference and it was clearly a case where he was taking sides in the dispute even though he confessed that he wasn't there."
Though charges were dropped, Gates has loudly declared his arrest was a result of racial profiling.
Obama never used the term racial profiling in his answer, but the president was insistent that African Americans and Latinos are unfairly targeted by the police.
Some 76 percent of African-Americans in an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in January said blacks in their community do not receive equal treatment as whites from the police. (Fewer than half as many whites, 34 percent, shared that view.)
Thirty-seven percent of blacks said they feel they personally have been stopped by the police solely because of their race – soaring to 59 percent of black men, compared with 22 percent of black women.