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Our Problematic Belief in the Magical, Mystical Negro

New research finds white Americans are more likely to attribute superhuman attributes to blacks than to their fellow whites.
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(Photo: Alexandra Petruk/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Alexandra Petruk/Shutterstock)

Spike Lee was the first prominent person to point it out. A surprising number of American movies feature what he termed a “magical, mystical Negro” character, who possesses some form of supernatural powers. Think The Green Mile.

Well, it turns out Hollywood didn’t create this stereotype, but merely codified an unspoken assumption. Newly published research shows that, on both a conscious and unconscious level, white Americans are more likely to attribute superhuman capacities to blacks than to members of their own race.

While that may sound like a relatively benign form of racism, its implications are disturbing. The researchers, led by Northwestern University psychologist Adam Waytz, report this bizarre belief helps explain the surprisingly widespread belief that blacks feel less pain than whites.

“This is important,” the researchers write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, “because failure to recognize someone else’s pain likely reduces empathy, and justifies withholding when aid is needed.”

"Superhumanization appears distinctly associated with the tendency to overlook pain in blacks relative to whites."

Waytz and his colleagues describe four studies that provide evidence backing up their thesis. Arguably the most striking of these featured 190 white Americans recruited online via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

“Participants viewed an image of John, a black male, and Jeff, a white male, and were asked to write about what it would be like to meet each one,” the researchers explain. They were then asked to indicate “which target would be more capable of three superhuman qualities?”

Specifically, they were asked which person “is more capable of using their supernatural powers to suppress bodily needs (food, water, etc.);” “has supernatural quickness that makes them capable of running at the speed of light;” and “has supernatural strength that makes them capable of lifting up a building.”

Participants then evaluated John and Jeff’s more mundane abilities. They were asked which of the men “is more capable of walking a dog;” “has the ability to pick out a ripe avocado at the grocery store;” and “has the ability to sit through a baseball game from beginning to end.”

Finally, participants were asked to imagine each man had undergone seven painful experiences, including dislocating a shoulder in a sports injury and burning a finger by touching a hot dish. In each case, they were asked which man “requires more pain medication to reduce the pain they have experienced?”

As in the earlier studies, participants “significantly superhumanized blacks compared to whites,” Waytz and his colleagues report. “A majority of participants assigned superhumanness to the black target,” they report, adding that this pattern was particularly strong for those superhuman qualities reflecting “strength and quickness.”

In contrast, participants viewed blacks as “marginally less capable than whites of everyday human activities.” And, perhaps most importantly, “people attributed significantly less pain to blacks vs. whites.

“Superhumanization appears distinctly associated with the tendency to overlook pain in blacks relative to whites,” the researchers conclude.

On one level, these results seem at odds with the large amount of evidence suggesting many whites dehumanize blacks by implicitly associating them with apes. But on another, they grimly coincide: After all, apes are superior to humans in terms of brute strength.

And on a more basic level, if you think of an entire race as either superior or inferior to people like yourself, you are perceiving them as essentially different, and in less need of social support such as subsidized health insurance. Superhumans don’t need government assistance, while subhumans don’t deserve it.

As Watz and his colleagues put it: The “superhuman” bias, “despite its ostensible distinction from other forms of prejudice, may be just as dehumanizing and consequential.”