Why Did Darren Wilson Think Michael Brown Had Superpowers?

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Photo: St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office

Darren Wilson’s descriptions of Michael Brown in his grand jury testimony released last night are striking. According to Wilson’s account of his struggle with Brown, the teenager was an extremely powerful and vengeful beast capable of superhuman feats:

[W]hen I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” Wilson told the grand jury when he explained the initial struggle with Brown at the police cruiser. “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face,” Wilson told the jurors. “It looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

Then there’s Wilson’s description of Brown’s overall demeanor:

Very aggressive. Um, he is I don’t really know how to describe it. Um, he turns. I looked at his face. It was just intense. It was. I’ve never seen anybody look that, for lack of a better words, crazy, I’ve never seen that. I mean, it was very aggravated, um, aggressive, hostile. Just, you couldn’t, you could, you could tell he was lookin’ through ya. There was nothin’ he was seeing

Wilson also said that Brown “looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”

And so on. Brown was a legitimately large kid — he outweighed Wilson by about 80 pounds. But Wilson isn’t just saying Brown was large: He’s saying or implying that he looked like a demon, that he was emanating almost superhuman anger, that he was beyond human reason, that he was apparently trying to run through gunshots.

While Wilson was engaged in a physical confrontation with someone who outweighed him significantly, his characterization seems to fit a pattern outlined in a recent study led by Adam Waytz of Northwestern, which showed that white people associate black people with various mystical concepts — a so-called “superhumanization” bias that might help explain certain societal outcomes, like black patients in hospitals receiving less pain medication than white ones. The researchers showed that whites are quicker to associate blacks than whites with various superhuman words, and are more likely to think blacks have certain superhuman abilities and associate those abilities with a diminished capacity to feel pain.

Furthermore, the Waytz paper has some specific comments on crime that seem prescient here:

The present findings also suggest numerous implications of this bias for future research to explore… Superhumanization of Blacks might… explain why people consider Black juveniles to be more ‘‘adult’’ than White juveniles when judging culpability (Rattan, Levine, Dweck, & Eberhardt, 2012); perhaps people attribute enhanced agency to Blacks thereby judging them more culpable than Whites for their actions (Gray et al., 2007). Relatedly, superhumanization of Blacks may contribute to Whites’ tolerance for police brutality against Blacks (Goff et al., 2008); perhaps people assume that Blacks possess extra (i.e., superhuman) strength enabl[ing] them to endure violence more easily than other humans. For now, the present research provides evidence of a superhumanization bias that, despite its ostensible distinction from other forms of prejudice, may be just as dehumanizing and consequential.

Dehumanizing and consequential” neatly sums up Wilson’s impressions of Brown, that’s for sure.