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‘The Scandal of Cal’: Book details UC Berkeley’s history with Indigenous peoples, US military

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Tony Platt's book recounts UC Berkeley's history with Indigenous peoples and the U.S. military, as well as its role in shaping historical narratives.


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AUGUST 28, 2023

Author Tony Platt’s book, “The Scandal of Cal: Land Grabs, White Supremacy and Miseducation at UC Berkeley,” is available to purchase Tuesday.

The history discusses campus’ complex involvement with colonialism, militarism and the Manhattan Project, among other topics.

“This was a very collaborative research (process),” Platt said. “There was a small number of faculty and staff and a large number of students that were involved in this.”

He noted working with Berkeley Law professors Nazune Menka and Seth Davis, retired professor emeritus Susan Schweik, directors of the Hearst museum, students from Menka’s “Decolonizing UC Berkeley” class and many others.

Indigenous peoples 

Platt said the book started out as a political activist research project with the Truth and Justice Project, an organization dedicated to researching campus’ failure to repatriate Indigenous remains in its possession following the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

He set out to answer the question of whether or not campus’ failure to comply with Indigenous groups’ demands to repatriate the remains was systemic.

“The early stages of this project was about finding evidence that supported claims for repatriation,” Platt said. “It wasn’t designed as a book. I didn’t have a book in mind; that happened much later on.”

He noted that prior to the raiding of Indigenous gravesites in California, campus was involved in expeditions to Egypt, Peru and Mexico, and brought back an estimated 1000 human remains.

Platt also said campus wanted to emulate Western museums that went on expeditions to procure human remains and artifacts. Campus declined to comment on Platt’s book.

“The University of California imagined itself settling the West, bringing civilization to California, civilizing the land, the people and the history of this place,” Platt said. “That’s why its selected slogan for the university is Fiat Lux.”

Platt explained that Fiat Lux, or “let there be light,” originates from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament.

During this time, Platt said campus “imagined itself bringing light to the darkness,” and he emphasized that this is a colonialist, white supremacist view of history.

According to Platt, campus assumed it could bring civilization and knowledge to the region, subsequently disregarding the three-to-five thousand years of history of Indigenous peoples who occupied the land prior.

Campus architecture and monuments

Platt’s research was not just confined to historical records, photographs and books.

During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, Platt said he spent time riding his bike and observing campus.

“I spent a lot of time looking at the history of how the campus was organized, how it was created, how its architecture was selected and how buildings became named,” Platt said. “That’s very important. That’s the way that a place reproduces its values.”

He added that campus’ values are rooted in white supremacy, eugenics, colonialism and more, which get “reproduced in the way the place looks and feels.”

In particular, Platt noted that buildings on campus reflect European designs and ideas, whereas Mexican and Indigenous architecture is left out.

Militarism on campus

A subsection of Platt’s research depicted the extensive involvement of the U.S. military on campus.

Platt estimated that military training and taking courses on military tactics were mandatory for students for an estimated 80-90 years, up until the mid-20th century.

“The university then seemed to be more like a military camp a lot of the time than it was actually a place of learning and education,” Platt said.

The Manhattan Project

In his research, Platt found that in the summer of 1942, campus physicists secretly met in the Physics building, formerly known as LeConte Hall, to begin building the atomic bomb.

According to Platt, the Physics building was once named after a prominent white supremacist figure on campus. The building’s former title was removed in 2020 due to the controversial legacies left behind by brothers Joseph and John LeConte.

Despite the unnaming, controversy arose last year when community members brought attention to a plaque that memorialized the brothers on Grinnell Pathway. Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof noted the Building Name Review Committee that suggested the unnaming of LeConte Hall was only charged with deliberating on building names, and as such, did not consider other “items” honoring the same names.

“The university was deeply involved in creating and administering the atomic bomb,” Platt said. “Not just thinking about it, but the science of it and proactively involved in deciding where it was going to be dropped in Japan.”

Platt emphasized his belief that through the bombings, the U.S. killed Japanese citizens in ways that violate both rules of war and human rights.

Miseducation and acknowledging history 

According to Platt, campus had a hand in creating historical narratives that are still told today. Prominent campus intellectuals wrote textbooks, memoirs and more, influencing popular perceptions of Californian history, he added.

Platt emphasized the depth of shock students feel when he speaks to them about alleged miseducation and inaccurate narratives pushed forth by campus.

Platt added that campus needs to be a “collaborative partner” with Indigenous groups to deal with issues of repatriation for the Indigenous peoples affected by campus.

“I don’t have a straightforward list of things that have to be done to change things but I think business as usual needs to stop,” Platt said. “The institution needs to think deeply about these issues. Most importantly, Indigenous peoples, tribes, Native organizations and communities in California, have to be at the center of that.”

Contact Lucía Umeki-Martínez at 


AUGUST 29, 2023