Sand and Fog in the Gates Affair

Police intimidation in House of Sand and FogPolice intimidation in House of Sand and Fog  

The House of Sand and Fog, by Andre Dubus III, came out in 1999, was a National Book Award finalist, became an Oprah selection, and was turned into a film.  I mention it here because it gets at the way that cultural differences and misunderstandings, combined with police abuse of power, can spiral out of control so that everyone gets hurt.  In other words, it gives us perspective on the recent Henry Louis Gates arrest.

In the book Kathy Nicolo is mistakenly evicted from her house based on an address mistake in the county tax assessor’s office, and an Iranian military officer, formerly with the Shah and now working as a janitor and store clerk, buys it for a fraction of its market price.  Planning on selling it at full value after he has fixed it up, he moves his family into it.  A Legal Aid lawyer gets the county to admit its mistake, and the Iranian officer is asked to sell it back.  He has used his son’s college fund to buy the house, however, and he refuses to give it up for anything less than what he could get on the market.

Kathy is not the most stable of people and begins to pester the family.  At one point there seems to be the possibility of reconciliation, but a set of events has been set into motion that ends in cataclysm.   It is such a grim story that my friend Ron Stone, who runs our campus bookstore and who has seen the film, says that he now adds “of sand and fog” to the title of any movie that he finds particularly depressing.  Therefore, he writes, Revolutionary Road became for him Marriage of Sand and Fog while The Reader became Sexual Awakening of Sand and Fog.

What I remember most about the book is police officer Lester Burdon, who has developed a relationship with Kathy.  He seems like a good guy, but he has a history of framing suspects that he knows are guilty (like Hank Quinlan in the Orson Welles film Touch of Evil).  He first plants evidence in a particularly egregious case where it appears that the perpetrator (I think he is a child molester or rapist but it’s been a while since I’ve read the book) will escape justice if Burdon doesn’t frame him. The reader considers giving him a pass in this instance, but the abuse of power leads to a regular bending of the rules.  When he encounters Kathy’s situation, he intervenes with a disregard for the law that has disastrous consequences.

And this is the lesson that the book has for the Gates affair.  It may well be that that Gates was offensive and obnoxious in the six minutes that transpired between when Officer Connelly showed up at his house investigating a reported possible break-in and when he made the arrest.  (You can read the entire police transcript here.)But we can’t arrest people for being offensive and obnoxious.  As Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson puts it, “I lived in Cambridge for a year, and I can attest that meeting a famous Harvard professor who happens to be arrogant is like meeting a famous basketball player who happens to be tall. It’s not exactly a surprise. Crowley wouldn’t have lasted a week on the force, much less made sergeant, if he had tried to arrest every member of the Harvard community who treated him as if he belonged to an inferior species.”

Maybe Officer Crowley, like Professor Gates, had had a bad day.  Goodness knows, it is very difficult to be a police officer.  It is especially hard to be called a racist by someone whose house you’ve just shown up to protect.  But that’s why the power that he has been granted must be treated with such care.  It is frighteningly easy to abuse that power. Of course, it is access to that power that attracts certain types of people to police departments. 


In his book, Dubus makes clear that suspicion against middle easterners (even before 9-11) contributes to the police abuse against the Iranian officer.  While I am willing to believe that Crowley is not an overt racist, deeper narratives, as Gates noted, could well have been at work in the Cambridge situation. 

Perhaps some primal white working class prejudice, probably against blacks but perhaps against intellectuals or against people of privilege (or, in likelihood, all three) rose up in James Crowley’s gullet and prompted him to use his power against a man who was making him feel small, even though the man was clearly no threat.   I have to think that race was the dominant factor–I can’t imagine the arrest being made if Gates were white.   According to New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, this is not the only time in recent years that innocent Harvard African Americans have been targeted by police.

Dubus shows how fast, and potentially how tragically, things can get out of hand, and his book makes clear that there are wider forces at work.  House of Sand and Fog is important reading for that reason.   If we just see police or African Americans or liberals or intellectuals as the cause, then we don’t acknowledge the complexity of race.  Policemen happen to be on the front lines of society-wide problems that are so challenging that “even the best” (I’ll write on that expression tomorrow since a noted black poet once applied it to me in a poem) can yield to prejudice.  To make police the scapegoats, however, is counterproductive

They, and the rest of us, must make it a high priority to better understand how racism works.  Most Americans, unfortunately, don’t want to engage in this work, which they view as emotionally challenging.  Although, as psychologists point out, it is ultimately easier to face up to painful issues (like race) than to deny them, many would rather lay all the blame for the Gates incident on either the professor or the policeman.

Literature, whether House of Sand and Fog or Native Son or Othello, is an immersion into multiple perspectives, as effective as any beer gathering in helping us grasp the dramas of race relations and see them from point of view of the participants.   Of course, conversations between the races are also vital.  If Gates and Crowley, by talking to each other, can achieve new insights into the face of the Other, and if they can share their understanding with the rest of us, then the incident really will have been a teachable moment. 

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  1. Julia Bates
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I jarred a bit by your statement that people are attracted to police work because of power issues. Perhaps so. However, Malcolm Gladwell says that we are culturally programed to respond in certain ways to stressful situations. His example is the deep cultural response of Southerners to challenges to their authority. He claims that these responses are deeply subconscious and persist over generations. Racism maybe part of the policeman’s response, but it also may be cultural training that is beyond conscious control.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I’m not saying ALL police are attracted to the power, just certain types of people. What percentage, I don’t know. I love the Gladwell articulation. Does Gladwell have ideas on how to move beyond such cultural training?

One Trackback

  1. By A Story about Race Redemption on August 14, 2009 at 2:49 am

    […] write today about the father of Andre Dubus III, whose House of Sand and Fog I looked at last week.  The elder Andre Dubus, now dead, is one of my favorite short story writers, and his novella […]


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