It’s Official: Black People are Now Superhuman

Variations of the trope have existed for years beyond count. The myth that the “Middle Passage” had the effect of selecting only the strongest African captives, while the weaker ones died. Then, those who survived were further selected for strength through generations of enslavement. Which leads us to the persistent belief that Black people are athletically superior.

The Green Lantern
John Stewart, a.k.a. The Green Lantern (DC Comics)

Hollywood’s version is the magical Negro, that secondary character who selflessly assists the white hero with extraordinary wisdom, power, spirituality, strength, and other superhuman characteristics that white people cannot approach.

One might think that this is progress. Certainly applying positive traits to African Americans should be a good thing, right? It’s better than a long list of negative stereotypes, isn’t it?

Actually, it’s too complicated to say one is better than the other. They are both dangerous, and when negative stereotypes are combined with the myth of superhuman traits, we get Darren Wilson’s testimony: “I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” … “That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt.” Brown had an “intense aggressive face” that looked like “a demon.” Strength, huge size, aggressive, demonic. (Read more at NPR’s Code Switch blog.)

Now, a study by scholars at Northwestern University and the University of Virginia puts some data behind White perceptions of Black superhuman traits. (“A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, October 8, 2014.) Here’s the abstract:

The present research provides the first systematic empirical investigation into superhumanization, the attribution of supernatural, extrasensory, and magical mental and physical qualities to humans. Five studies test and support the hypothesis that White Americans superhumanize Black people relative to White people. Studies 1–2b demonstrate this phenomenon at an implicit level, showing that Whites preferentially associate Blacks versus Whites with superhuman versus human words on an implicit association test and on a categorization task. Studies 3–4 demonstrate this phenomenon at an explicit level, showing that Whites preferentially attribute superhuman capacities to Blacks versus Whites, and Study 4 specifically shows that superhumanization of Blacks predicts denial of pain to Black versus White targets. Together, these studies demonstrate a novel and potentially detrimental process through which Whites perceive Blacks.

The dangers of attributing superhuman traits to African Americans doesn’t stop with Darren Wilson. It has wide-spread, devastating real-world consequences.

  • If Black people have a superhuman ability to withstand pain, doctors will treat them with less pain medication.
  • If Black people have superhuman strength, then perhaps we’d better send forth the riot police pre-emptively so they don’t get out of hand.
  • If Black people have superhuman spiritual natures, then perhaps the rest of us can look to them to assuage our guilt and take care of us and our children.
  • If Black people have superhuman power, then Black people who go “bad” – even juveniles – should probably be locked up for a very long time.

No comic book hero ending here. Just more excuses for repression.

What’s Up With 68% of White People?

Graphic representing responses to the Pew poll.Pew Research has released a new poll showing that merely 37% of White people believe that the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, raises important issues about race. (Compare to 80% of African Americans.) I know that there will always be some who “don’t see race” (supposedly), but a full two-thirds in what seems like such a clear case to me…. I’m not sure what to do with this. What is going on?

Since the poll doesn’t get into the reasons why people chose their answers, I’ve been trying to imagine why so many people say that Michael Brown’s killing doesn’t “raise important issues about race.” Maybe it’s these arguments:

  • The officer, Darren Wilson, didn’t use a racial expletive, therefore it didn’t have anything to do with race, or at least we don’t really know what was in his heart. (My response: For race to be an aspect of a situation, what is in anybody’s “heart” or intention is really superficial. Do the results of Wilson’s, or the Ferguson PD’s, actions reinforce white power and privilege? Is it even possible that Wilson’s racial socialization helped shape his actions? If so, then “Yes, the situation raises important issues about race.”)
  • Michael Brown was breaking the law (jaywalking) and the officer was only trying to enforce the law, but then things got out of hand, and Wilson made some poor decisions. But it’s a law enforcement issue, not a race issue. (My response: Do officers treat all jaywalkers the same? Why are you so sure that Wilson’s “poor decisions” (drawing his gun on a jaywalker) weren’t especially “poor” because of race?)
  • Michael Brown was a thief and a thug and had it coming, regardless of his race. (My response: It isn’t even true that he stole some smokes. Anyone who can’t bother to get simple facts correct can’t be expected to analyze racial dynamics with reason.)

If there is anything hopeful in the Pew poll, it’s that the 37% is higher than the 28% of White people who responded similarly regarding Trayvon Martin’s killing in a poll last summer. I guess that’s progress.

Race, Perceptions and Stereotypes

Some interesting social science research on race, perceptions and stereotypes and how they play into white supremacy and internalized oppression/inferiority. Highlights from an NPR story (listen to the story or read the transcript at the link):

SAPERSTEIN: If someone went from being employed to being unemployed, or being out of prison to being in prison, or being off welfare to being on welfare, the interviewer was more likely to see the person as black – after they experienced that sort of downward mobility – than before.


And she [Saperstein]  found that when people went to prison, they became more likely to think of themselves as black. And that’s because their minds were also subject to this very same stereotypes.


Research Brief on Intersectionality

With our focus on the intersections of oppressions, this write-up on the RacismReview blog about a special intersectionality issue of the Journal DuBois Review, may be of interest to some of our readers. Three of the articles are available for free until February 17, after which you would need to have access to a subscription.