July 23, 2009 — -- 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.
"The president was right on target [on] racial profiling. We all know we come from communities where some of us actually understand and have been racially profiled," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D- Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The lawyer for the union representing the Cambridge police said that president was wrong to conflate the Gates case with the history of racism in the U.S.
"Notwithstanding my great respect for President Obama, I think he was dead wrong to malign this police officer specifically and the department in general. This is an excellent police department dedicated to non-discrimination," said Alan McDonald, the lawyer for the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association.
"It was inappropriate to use the situation to implicate the history of racism in America. This had nothing to do with race and everything to do with Gates' behavior," McDonald said.
Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said, "I think he was saying it as a friend of 'Skip' Gates, but he's got to rememberhe's the president of the United States and what he said has global implications for police."
While black leaders praised Obama for entering the fray, they cautioned that the president alone could not heal a centuries-old wound.
Obama has discussed race relations only a few times since running for the presidency and taking office, most recently at a meeting last week of the NAACP.
In that speech, Obama spoke more about black Americans taking responsibility in their own lives, more than about institutional racism in the U.S.
As a state senator in Illinois, Obama sponsored a bill that would study racial profiling by police in that state.
He also spoke out against the conviction of six black teenagers from Jena, La., who were accused in 2006 of beating a white man.
"Obama is the president for all American not just black Americans. He has enough on his plate as commander in chief – two wars, an economy in the tank – that he should not necessarily become the healer in chief," said Brazile.
"This was not an abstract question on race. 'Skip' Gates is a friend of the Obamas and Barack went to Harvard," she said. "His role is important and his voice is important. But if Americans want to fix race in America, in the big picture, it's going to be up to us to have that conversation."