Amnesia at UC
By Lou Fancher
Odd sensations creep into play when reading The Scandal of Cal, writer Tony Platt’s new book about—as the subtitle makes explicit—the historic and ongoing Land Grabs, White Supremacy, and Miseducation at UC Berkeley.
With the turn of each page, the Berkeley-based writer lays out the facts, figures and atrocities committed by the university as it took the homelands and remains of Native Americans in the United States and Indigenous people in other countries. At the same time, Cal’s founders, administrators, faculty and funders variously developed and promoted, among other things, the pseudoscience of eugenics, the militarization of its male students in the early 20th century and more.
Such a book reasonably prompts sensitive readers to pingpong from initial disbelief to outright skepticism to acceptance as the staggering volume of facts, figures and other evidence in the book’s four sections reaches a crescendo. A bubbling sense of outrage begins a hard boil as Platt rolls out the narrative of Cal’s juxtapositional posturing and shameless self-promotion of its origins as rosy and its historical footprint as that of an innovative, progressive institution.
According to Platt’s research and the many examples provided in his book, a public relations campaign well over a century long has positioned Cal as a bastion of anti-war activism, free speech, social justice; a model entity devoted to truth-telling. The last few chapters of Scandal cause indignation to veer toward dismay when Platt takes readers on recent walks he has taken through the campus and highlights the memorial plaques, building names and wall texts that continue to pay tribute to fallen heroes.
The further proof of university leaders’ modern day statements and university policies he describes (and backs up with evidence) add up to what Platt in the book labels “Planned Obliviousness,” “Amnesia” and “Stubborn Resistance.” The narrative includes the university’s coverups, denials, performative gestures and avoidance of honest portrayals that only expand the questioning of Cal’s social justice history.
The crash of Cal’s reputation—a reputation predicated on it having been and being a house of justice and a safe harbor welcoming and respectful to all—strikes a hard, wounding blow. The only reprieve—and it’s an immensely important one—comes in Scandal’s final pages, in which Platt provides practical and doable next-steps solutions aimed at reparations and healing. Notably, he points as models for Cal to emulate other American academic institutions and movements in other countries that are traveling along paths to justice.
Platt, 81, is the author of 13 books and numerous essays and articles on race, inequality and social justice in American history. His Grave Matters: The Controversy over Excavating California’s Buried Indigenous Past, first released in 2011 and later re-issued by Heyday Books, examines the history of the Yurok people, whose human remains were excavated and used for research by UC Berkeley without consent from their living ancestors.
Besides books, Platt’s writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Truthdig, History Network, Nation, Salon, The Guardian and others. He is a Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society and has taught at the University of Chicago, the University of California, Berkeley and California State University, Sacramento.
In an interview, Platt said an invitation he calls “serendipitous” had brought him back to his alma mater as a research scholar, the position he holds now, and to teach classes in legal studies.
“The book was made possible in large part by COVID,” Platt noted. “I was given access to the archives in the Bancroft Library and I was there, often entirely alone. The idea that stimulated the book was the university’s Truth and Justice Project that I co-founded. It was created to push the university to comply with legislation of repatriation and to understand why Berkeley had been so resistant to it. I wasn’t planning to do the book. It came out of doing that research.”
Research, not just Platt’s, but coming after a year-long investigation from ProPublica and NBC News, shows Cal to be the least compliant campus in following the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed by Congress in 1990. According to Platt, the university continues to hold the largest collection of un-repatriated Native American remains in the United States.
“What affected me deeply was going through the archives and reading the reports of people digging up remains,” said Platt. “The inhumanity of not thinking of them as relatives of people, as real people who had died…they were instead described as specimens. The language that was used? I frequently had to take breaks from that and sit with the emotional residue.
“I hadn’t realized how much Berkeley had created a mythology and branded themselves according to those myths. It explains why they had and have such a problem, such difficulty holding themselves responsible for what happened, for what they had done,” he continued.
The images, language and numbers are awful and astonishing. In a 1948 Life magazine feature, anthropology staff work on dozens of crania and leg bones: The text boasts that Berkeley has everything “from books and bugs to skulls and sandbags.” Another image of female students in bathing suits lounging on a pool deck near the Hearst gym fails to note that in the basement mortuary were at least 7,680 Native American remains; the items labeled only as “human skeletal material” and with no place of origin cited.
With so many hoarded items, negligence, inadequate storage and non-compliance with proper protocols inevitably resulted. Hearst Museum director James Deetz in 1980 said the collections “were decaying due to neglect,” and director Rosemary Joyce in 1997, upon viewing the stacked boxes filled with sacred Native American remains, was “horrified at the overcrowding, the general level of disorganization, the amount of neglect.”
Significantly, Platt writes of the Morrill Land Grant Act that was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and allowed states to take land designated as “unpeopled public domain” to fund new universities.
As the act was intended to create more agricultural and mechanical arts colleges, Cal jumped on the opportunity to grab Native American land and sacred burial sites. At the same time, Cal abandoned their early aspirations related to agriculture and aiming to become an elite higher education institution on par and in competition with East Coast Ivy League universities and colleges.
“The federal government took lands they said were unoccupied and gave them to states and allowed them to purchase and build universities. It allowed states to run Native Americans off the land, to decimate them,” said Platt. “The land for Berkeley was not free, unencumbered land. It was stolen land.
“Berkeley shifted its idea of being an agricultural college to being a university. Yes, it got into agriculture and mining, but it also saw itself as an academic giant. And it wasn’t just in Native American land they exploited. Before they dug up graves in California, they sent expeditions to Egypt and Peru. They brought back those remains, and this became an important part of the university’s identity in the first few decades. And even now…,” Platt continued.
Platt said people expect each book he writes to get easier, but it is not. “This is my 13th book, and I didn’t want to settle for mediocre writing. I wanted more people to read it and challenge it so the writing gets better,” he noted.
While writing daily for four hours in the early morning and having done research that stretched over more than three years, Platt subscribes to the “go in with an outline but prepare for detours” school of writing. “The craft of doing intellectual work and research is having flexibility. You will find things that raise questions about things you thought you knew of, but find you do not. Otherwise, it’s propaganda writing, which I’ve done, but this was not,” he stated.
Platt encountered constant surprises. “I didn’t think I would write about how Cal got its land,” he recalled. “I was focused on repatriation and why it had stalled and what Berkeley was doing with all the artifacts they had collected and stolen from Indigenous land. I didn’t think I’d end up in New Mexico researching the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. Until I did research, I didn’t realize the University of California was responsible for administering the operation in Los Alamos. That was a surprise to me.
“I didn’t know Berkeley ran the museum there. That got me curious. I ended up writing more about Berkeley’s military history too. What the university omits from its history became just as interesting to me. What else is not recognized and not talked about? I had to be open to where the ideas took me. Following leads is like pulling on strands that end up being connected,” he explained.
Tangled and caught with those interwoven stands, there are examples of outliers, voices that sometimes rose up to counter or express remorse for their role in the overall systemic racism that prevailed at Cal. Robert Heizer (1915-79) was an academic in the Department of Anthropology who had participated in hundreds of excavations of Native American grave sites. Tribal protests and social justice movements in the 1960s caused his viewpoint to pivot and his humanity to re-awaken.
Platt writes, “Heizer was among the earliest academics to use the g-word (genocide) when describing the state’s efforts to exterminate Native peoples in the nineteenth century.” Later, Heizer argued that “it would be difficult for any museum to insist, in the face of demand by living descendants, that its human bone collection was the museum’s legal property, and that Indians were simply being emotional about the whole thing.”
Said Platt, “It was a relief to find him at the end of his life looking back and thinking about what he had done. He went against the grain. At the end of a distinguished career it was unusual to look back. His language, ‘genocide,’ and other things he said as he put himself in the place of those people and their descendants—he said they were grandparents, parents and children.
“It’s not that studying things scientifically isn’t important. But you need permission from descendants to do that. Berkeley knew there were living descendants and never attempted to get that permission. They wanted to study the bones, but what they ended up doing was more like hoarding than like science. Most of the remains were not studied. They were just dumped in boxes, undocumented. They wanted to show off the stuff they accumulated. Until the legislative NAGPRA in 1990 and subsequent protests, they put it on display,” he continued.
Platt said he gets absolutely zero pushback from young people when he speaks about this part of Cal’s history. “They’re upset they haven’t been taught this. They were given the mystique of the Spanish missions and now, there’s anger they weren’t given true information,” he noted. “It changes how you feel when you walk through the campus and look at the buildings. I say, let’s have a conversation if we disagree. Let’s have it out: anything other than the silence that goes on now.”
As for those conversations, Platt insisted there are three vital steps that are not new and for which there are terrific models. “Truth, reckoning and then justice,” he said. “We’re still at the truth part, but the evidence is compelling. Berkeley has to stop and consider their profound history. They must grapple with how they got their start and hear more testimony.”
Reckoning and restorative justice must include and be shaped alongside Native American and tribal organizations as equal or leading partners. According to Platt, “They have to be at the table, not just as window dressing. They have to have a fundamental, essential role.
“What do we do about the fact that most Bay Area tribes do not have federal recognition because they do not have land? There is no Ohlone federally recognized tribe. They have no offices, resources and other things that would be provided if federal recognition was given. This needs intervention from the governor’s office, the legislature, the tribes around the state, the City of Berkeley and representatives of the university, including students, staff and administrators,” he continued.
Platt said the university need only look to existing social justice movements for models: reformation following South African apartheid, or the genocide in Rwanda, and examples from East Coast university’s like Harvard that he said are dealing with how slave trade played a role in their economic structures.
“Any places where colonization happened are models: It’s not like they have to reinvent something,” he said. “The university must stop the public relations approach to our history and really live up to the truth. It’s not setting up new policies or having a task force in response to this profound crisis in their history. Instead, it should be studying what other institutions have done and learning what must be done in Berkeley.”