How the Multiracial Category Can be a Lifesaver

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April 20, 2009

Re: Pending Legislation for a Multiracial Identity on Forms


First, congratulations on bringing this important legislation to the forefront of California law. As a Californian, and resident of one of the most diverse states in the country, my input is not from a psychological perspective, but rather from a public health, medical and bioethical perspective. When you and I worked together years ago, we focused on the multiracial category as it pertained to solid organ and bone marrow matching. Today, with the advent of better immunosuppressives, thus allowing more tolerance for mismatched donors and recipients, the critical focus is now on all of public health and medicine. Let me explain.

The results from the Human Genome Project are what is now called “translational research.” Translational research or “TR” is the underlying basis for “translational medicine”, the process that leads from evidence-based medicine to sustainable solutions for public health problems.1 This pragmatic medical and clinical research is also known as “Bench-to-Bedside.” Within the next five years, much of public health and medicine will be based on prevention and wellness models and “personalized” medicine.

Personalized medicine has at its root, both the genetic and self-knowledge components. While the genetic is important, the knowledge about oneself, one’s family, one’s ancestors, is vital. This is one of the reasons genealogy has become so deeply rooted in the American culture. People want to know about, claim and embrace ALL of who they are.

For scientists, physicians and researchers, a subject or patient knowing about themselves and their culture and lifestyle, begins to move research and healthcare, toward more cures and therapies.

The Appearance of a Conflict

A review of much of the most recent literature in public health, medicine and epidemiology reveals a breaking down of the mutually exclusive racial boundaries and categories, and the sociologically defined ‘racial’ and ‘ethnic’ groups: ‘Black’, ‘White’, ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic’, and ‘Asian’. Even, the American Anthropological Association, (AAA), has a Statement on Race2 that states: ”

In the United States, both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups….Physical variations in any given trait tend to occur gradually rather than abruptly over geographic areas.

Nevertheless, the ‘baby’ of genetic variability or difference should not be thrown out with the ‘bathwater’ of racism.

There is still in the United States, a geographic and cultural population “clustering” that has scientific merit and efficacy. A meaningful example for California is the ethnoracial category called ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino.’ ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ groups are socially and broadly generalized, usually through language. However, their ancestors are a combination of Europeans, Native American Indians and Africans, in distinct and unique combinations. Each group also has a unique cultural background and belief system. This means that a Puerto Rican is not a Cuban is not a Dominican is not a Mexican is not a Salvadoran.

Many of the California Latinos are of Mexican origin from Northwestern Mexico, primarily Indios (indigenous) and European. Mexicans on the rural Gulf of Mexico coasts of Veracruz and the Western Pacific coast of Costa Chica in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca were Afro-Mexicans, admixed descendants of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

On the U.S. East Coast, especially in Florida and New York, the ‘Hispanics,’ are primarily Cuban and Puerto Rican, respectively. New York has such a dominant number of Afro-descended Puertorrique–os, that they self-identify as “Nuyoricans.”3

How the Multiracial Category Can be a Lifesaver

One of the most clear cut reasons for allowing a multiracial category on all forms for public health and medical reasons lies, for just one example, in the history of African Americans, Puerto Ricans and Scotch-Irish or Celtics. For many years, scientists and physicians have known about Celiac Disease. Celiac disease is caused by a reaction to a gluten protein found in wheat, barley and rye and other wheat gliadins. When exposed to these substances, the person’s immune system cross-reacts with the small-bowel tissue, causing an inflammatory reaction. This interferes with the absorption of nutrients and can often be fatal. Celiac Disease is found primarily in North Americans with a Celtic heritage, i.e., Scotch-Irish, Irish, Scottish, and the northern parts of Atlantic Europe.

African Americans in the Low Country area of North and South Carolina have been interbreeding with the Scotch-Irish of the Carolina Piedmont since the 1700s. (See the maps: Clustering Of U.S. Scotch-Irish in North and South Carolina (PDF)).

In 18th and 19th century Puerto Rico, there was considerable Irish immigration to the island as well as settlements from the 16th century4. A number of Puerto Ricans are of Irish heritage and have Irish surnames, such as, Simpson, (former Miss Puerto Rico), and McClintock (Puerto Rico Senate President). A number of Puerto Ricans are of African heritage as well and equally must be aware of sickle cell trait and anemia.

These genealogies and heritages are important for groups who have historically self-identified as “African American” or Puerto Rican. However, for a multiracial child in 2009, it becomes even more critical if one parent is from a Celtic background and another Afro-descended. That recognition and identification – MULTIRACIAL – triggers for any physician, and a growing number of scientists and researchers, an expanse of their thinking for both diagnosis and treatment. I hope I have been helpful in bring this perspective to the legislation.


Kathleen Rand Reed, MAA
President and CEO
The Rand Reed Group

1 “NIH Expands Initiative to Encourage Bench-to-Bedside Research”

2 (May 17, 1998)

3 Nuyorican is a blending of the terms “New York” and “Puerto Rican” and refers to the members or culture of the Puerto Rican diaspora located in or around New York State especially the New York City metropolitan area, or of their descendants (especially those raised or still living in the New York area). The term is also used by Boricuas (Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico) to differentiate those of Puerto Rican descent from the Puerto Rico-born.

Irish Immigration to Puerto Rico.