A recent study conducted by Social Psychological and Personality Science has found evidence that white people have a “superhumanization bias” in regards to black people, more commonly associating African-Americans with magical traits.
This trope of the “magic black” or “magic Negro” has been a well-worn plot device in cinema and literature for years, but this study suggests that its impact extends well beyond the realm of fiction. It also reveals that racism, most commonly thought of as explicit and easy to spot, might often be far more subtle than originally believed.
The study also found that as whites’ belief in blacks as supernatural heightened, they started to believe that blacks had less capacity to experience pain.
Jesse Singal had this to say at the Science of Us:
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.
This stereotype has a wide range of potential impacts on how blacks are viewed in culture, including why black juveniles are considered to “be more ‘adult’ than white juveniles when judging culpability,” according to the researchers.
Even the President has been unable to escape this stereotype, with a song called “Barrack the Magic Negro,” being released during Obama’s 2008 campaign. David Ehrenstein pointed out that Obama’s message of hope and change was appealing partially for this very reason, writing, “For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn’t project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him.”
The study’s researchers also note that, “the phenomenon of superhumanization has received virtually no empirical attention in psychology” and that their five studies involving implicit reaction tests, which analyze snap, subconscious decision making, were some of the first empirical tests in the area.