White People Think Black People Are Magical

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Actor Will Smith stars as the mysterious man named Bagger Vance in The Legend of Bagger Vance.
Photo: David James/DreamWorks

Social scientists have known for a while that racism isn’t just about explicit hatred and animosity. Often, prejudice is the result of split-second, gut-level decision-making rather than the acts of bad people with malicious intentions. A recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Science casts an interesting new light on this: White people apparently have a “superhumanization bias” when it comes to black people — that is, they associate them with superhuman abilities.

In a series of five studies, some involving so-called implicit association tests in which words are flashed on a screen quickly enough to “prime” a subject with their meaning but not for them to consciously understand what they have seen, the researchers showed that whites are quicker to associate blacks than whites with superhuman words like ghost, paranormal, and spirit; are more likely to think a black person as opposed to a white person has certain superhuman abilities; and that the more they think blacks are superhuman, the less they view black people as having a capacity to feel pain.

These are weird findings, to be sure, and they run contrary to what we think of when we think of racism. While most people are familiar with the idea of seeing different ethnic or religious groups as subhuman, the researchers write that “the phenomenon of superhumanization has received virtually no empirical attention in psychology.” So what should we make of the fact that white people appear to “implicitly and explicitly superhumanize” black people? The authors state that more work is needed, but they suggest that superhumanization bias could help explain why black patients are undertreated for pain, for example, or why “people consider Black juveniles to be more ‘adult’ than White juveniles when judging culpability.”

The deeper you dig into race and social psychology, the more complicated things get.