Police Commissioner Robert Haas speaks to reporters at Cambridge, Mass., Police headquarters,Thursday (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

I winced when I heard Obama use the word “stupidly” in describing how the Cambridge police acted in arresting the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. It’s not that I disagreed with the president. A part of me admires the fact that the president would take the opportunity to discuss the dilemma of racial profiling in a prime time address.

However, seconds after “stupidly” slipped from his lips, I knew how his political rivals would spin it. My premonition was proven correct when on Thursday, the National Republican Congressional Committee ran a press release in congressional districts represented by Massachusetts Democrats asking, “Does your congressman think that Cambridge cops acted stupidly?”

Painting Democrats as soft on crime and anti-police has always been a key component of the Republican “southern strategy.” It’s a page from their political playbook that in part relies on white fear of blacks and minorities invading their neighborhoods with the intent to rob, rape, and kill.

Republicans cast themselves as tough on crime and able to protect suburban America from the savagery of inner-city minorities by supporting strict criminal sentencing and a strong backing of capital punishment.

This political maneuver was best displayed nationally during the 1988 presidential election. George H. W. Bush’s campaign portrayed opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, as a criminal sympathizer through the now infamous Willie Horton campaign ad. William R. Horton was a convicted murderer who was a part of Massachusetts’s furlough program that released him for a weekend in the middle of a life sentence without the possibility for parole. During his weekend out of prison, Horton committed assault, armed robbery, and rape. Dukakis supported the program and it contributed to his defeat.

Four years later, Rudy Giuliani dusted off the old political playbook in his mayoral bid against incumbent, David Dinkins, the first and only black man to be New York City’s mayor. Giuliani spoke at a rally near city hall to a sea of rowdy police officers protesting Dinkins’ proposal for a civilian board to review police misconduct. Dinkins lost the election despite grabbing 97% percent of the black vote. He only won 27% of white support.

Dinkins’ defeat illustrated the political risk of being a black Democrat at odds with members of law enforcement. It’s easier for Republicans to peg you as a criminal sympathizer, because in the minds of many Americans you yourself look like one of the criminals.

Republicans will likely use the “stupidly” remark in the 2010 elections against other Democrats, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the GOP decides to wheel out Cambridge Sergeant James Crowley in a 2012 political ad against Obama. My concern is that if the Republicans use this card, we may undo the racial progress made in the 2008 elections, and return to the divisive fears of 1988.