Black athletes are often portrayed as gods—though not always saints. They’re gravity defying (Air Jordan), invincible (Iron Mike), supercharged (if Usain Bolt’s last name didn’t exist, we would have had to invent it), or all-around supernatural (Magic Johnson). These monikers help sell magazines and sneakers, but there may be a deeper bias at play. New research suggests that whites think of blacks in general as superhuman, or at least more so than whites. And this bias may have implications far outside the wide world of sports.
Adam Waytz of Northwestern University and Kelly Marie Hoffman and Sophie Trawalter of the University of Virginia report the results of several studies on this subject in an upcoming issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science. In one experiment, white Internet users were shown a white face and a black face and asked to decide:
1) Which person “is more likely to have superhuman skin that is thick enough that it can withstand the pain of burning hot coals?”
2) Which person “is more capable of using their supernatural powers to suppress hunger and thirst?”
3) Which person “is more capable of using supernatural powers to read a person’s mind by touching the person’s head?”
4) Which person “is more capable of surviving a fall from an airplane without breaking a bone through the use of supernatural powers?”
5) Which person “has supernatural quickness that makes them capable of running faster than a fighter jet?”
6) Which person “has supernatural strength that makes them capable of lifting up a tank?”
Blacks were selected 63.5 percent of the time, significantly more than whites. The only two items that did not differ significantly were the ones about reading minds (52 percent blacks) and falling from a plane (54 percent).
If whites see blacks as excelling at superhuman physical tasks, do whites think they’re better at everyday stuff too? In another experiment, white subjects saw pictures of a black man and a white man and judged who was more capable when it came to everyday activities like walking a dog, picking a ripe avocado, and sitting through a baseball game, as well as superhuman ones like running as fast as light, lifting up a building, and suppressing bodily needs. They also judged who would require more pain medication for various incidents such as touching a hot dish or dislocating a shoulder.
For superhuman abilities, blacks were chosen 65 percent of the time, but for everyday abilities they were chosen only 46 percent of the time, so whatever leads whites to see blacks as superhuman doesn’t apply to commonplace tasks. Meanwhile, blacks were chosen as more sensitive to pain 31 percent of the time, confirming work by the same authors: In a paper in PLOS ONE, they showed that whites, blacks, and nurses of any race see blacks as less sensitive to pain than whites, and that black NFL players are put back in the lineup sooner after injuries.
Waytz says the superhuman bias may result in part from “long-held stereotypes about toughness, aggression, physicality, and sexuality.” Whites see blacks as athletic and aggressive, and so it’s easier to picture them running as fast as a jet or picking up a tank.
Matthew Hughey, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, notes that at the turn of the 20th century blacks began succeeding at popular sports, and “commentators began to emphasize white cognitive superiority in contrast to the supposedly savage and unbridled physical superiority of blacks. Accordingly, a popular culture narrative of ‘black brawn’ versus ‘white brains’ emerged.”
Pain tolerance would go along with that narrative, based on what Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner called moral typecasting. In any instance of intentional helping and hurting, we perceive an agent and a patient, a doer and a doee. They found that the more you cast someone as an active doer, the less you see the person as susceptible to things being done. Villains and heroes such as Hitler and the Dalai Lama, for instance, were considered relatively impervious to pain. Fitting this explanation, Waytz and colleagues found that the more people “superhumanized” blacks, the less pain sensitivity they attributed to them.
There’s another black superhuman stereotype, one less reliant on strength. In a recent sketch by the comedy duo Key and Peele, an old black man enters a white man’s office to empty the trash. He offers a bit of cryptic wisdom regarding the white man’s troubles—“I find, the more garbage in the can, the better it feels to dump it all out”—and makes a sparkly burst of light appear with the snap of his fingers. Another elderly black man enters to fix the copier. “Sometimes things ain’t really broken; it’s the way we treat ’em that needs to be fixed,” he says, before turning on the copier with a burst of energy from his hand. A duel of supernatural powers ensues between the two older men. They exclaim in unison: “There can be only one Magical Negro.”
Key and Peele were, of course, referring to a common trope. The Magical Negro has appeared regularly in film and fiction, particularly since the early 1990s. Examples can be found in Bruce Almighty, The Green Mile, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Ghost, The Family Man, and The Matrix (both the Oracle and to some degree Morpheus). These supporting black characters often come from a poor background and use magical powers or sage advice to help struggling white protagonists find themselves and achieve success. Unfortunately, their inner lives are rarely explored and they prioritize white people’s problems over their own. “How is it that black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?” Spike Lee asked an audience at Yale in 2001. “They’re still doing the same old thing ... recycling the noble savage and the happy slave.” In August, Jamil Ellis, a storyteller and writer, staged a one-man show in New York City called Magical Negro Speaks. He told me he created the show in part to protect his new daughter from “that nagging feeling that people sometimes think of you as a sidekick or as magical, and not as a fully fledged person.”
Might a superhumanizing bias help explain this persistent trope? In another experiment in the new paper, white undergrads were asked to press computer keys to place words quickly into one of two categories: superhuman or human. (The superhuman words were ghost, paranormal, spirit, wizard, supernatural, magic, and mystical; the human words were person, individual, humanity, people, civilian, mankind, and citizen.) Before each word appeared, a black or a white face appeared on the screen for 35 milliseconds, not long enough for someone to recognize it consciously, but just long enough to subconsciously prime thoughts about race. After black faces, subjects processed superhuman words faster than human words, while no difference existed after white faces.
So it appears that whites see blacks as having not just the strength and quickness of a superhero but also the mystical powers of a Magical Negro.
Well, not so fast. Waytz showed only an implicit association between blacks and mystical concepts, not explicit judgments of blacks as having occult capacities. And recall that on the explicit face-comparing task, blacks were chosen as better mind readers only 52 percent of the time. I was curious about other mystical powers, so I conducted a bit of my own research into these biases, using GuidedTrack and Amazon Mechanical Turk. Replicating Waytz’s comparing-faces procedure, using different questions and two new samples (of 85 and 74 white American adults), I found that subjects actually rated blacks as less likely than whites to have the kinds of mystical powers of the Magical Negro—telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and spell-casting. Overall, blacks were chosen 43 percent of the time. So it’s possible that this movie trope does not result from a stereotype of blacks as magical. The reason for the implicit association with magic reported in the paper demands further research. Might it have resulted from whites seeing blacks as believing in magic, rather than having magical powers? Maybe not: I found that whites judged blacks to be more superstitious only 53 percent of the time and to believe more strongly in ghosts only 45 percent of the time.
Where might the fictional trope come from, then? Some scholars suggest Magical Negroes exist in order to depict interracial cooperation in a nonthreatening way, or to reconnect cerebral white boys with their inner “swing.” (Thanks, Bagger!) Consistent with the idea that they offer a folksy soulfulness, I found that blacks were perceived as more likely than whites to rely on intuition in everyday life (62 percent) and to trust their guts making big decisions (70 percent). They’re also seen as giving better relationship advice (73 percent). As for the hocus pocus, I suspect it’s a form of cinematic affirmative action, a way to couch minorities’ differences as something “more than” rather than “less than.” The race-consciousness of 1990s America may have spurred filmmakers to theatrically ennoble certain stereotypes. Thus blacks gain their intuitive wisdom not through lack of sophistication but through supernatural gifts. They become gods, not animals.
Whatever the causes of the superhuman stereotypes and magical tropes, they appear to have real-world effects. The authors of the PLOS ONE paper write that their findings on pain attribution could explain the fact that black hospital patients receive less pain medication than whites do. The assumption of less pain and greater strength could also lead to support for police brutality against blacks. Waytz points to depictions of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and other black teenagers killed while unarmed. “You hear these stories of virtually superhuman black males charging toward the police officer or posing a larger than life physical threat,” he says. Police say they have no choice but to shoot. In the new paper they suggest that the superhuman bias could explain why black juveniles are judged more culpable for crimes than whites. They’re seen as more capable, more adult, and more responsible for their actions. For an articulation of this view, refer to what Ron Paul wrote in a 1992 newsletter: “We don’t think a child of thirteen should be held responsible as a man of twenty-three. That’s true for most people, but black males age thirteen who have been raised on the streets and who have joined criminal gangs are as big, strong, tough, scary and culpable as any adult and should be treated as such.”
So the superhuman bias potentially leads to greater abuse, reduced compassion, greater blame—and an overall estrangement. “Exoticism is linked to social marginality,” says Michael Jeffries, a sociologist at Wellesley College. “It inhibits empathy and the ability to develop a sense of linked fate across racial divides.” Waytz concurs. “Although superhumanization depictions of African Americans seem ostensibly positive in nature—in a sense it’s a great honor to depict someone as godlike or spirit-like,” he says, “ultimately we believe that superhumanization is just another way of ‘othering’ African Americans.” Superhumanization, in the end, is just dehumanization in a cape.