Do White People Think Black People Are Magic?

Last week, media reported on a psychological study suggesting that white people are predisposed to ascribe superhuman and magical qualities to black people. Spike Lee famously described the trope of the “Magical Negro,” found in films like The Green Mile, but this study is the first attempt to analyze “superhumanization bias” empirically. It may also have implications for religious studies since historians of religion have noted that the way we imagine the religious other overlaps closely with racist ideas about witchcraft and “voodoo” as well as forms of “romantic racism” such as the noble savage and the “oriental monk.”

The study consisted of five tests that measured how white subjects associated words or ideas with either black faces or white faces. One test showed that subjects associated the words “ghost,” “paranormal,” “spirit,” “wizard,” “supernatural,” “magic,” and “mystical,” more frequently with black faces. In another test, subjects were shown two faces and forced to answer such questions as: “Which of these people has supernatural quickness that makes them capable of running faster than a fighter jet?”  Here too, subjects were more likely to attribute superhuman powers to a black face rather than a white one.

The data don’t prove that white people think blacks are “legit warlocks,” as Gawker’s Hudson Hongo concluded. Three of the five tests had very small sample sizes and most of the subjects were undergraduates participating in an experiment for partial course credit. For researchers, these results are significant because they advance a theory about prejudice; while similar studies of racial bias have attempted to study how other races may be regarded as less than human, there have been virtually no empirical studies of biases that portray the racial other as “superhuman.” This study specifically analyzed white prejudices toward blacks, but it’s likely that many cultures have similar prejudices toward other races.

While it might sound positive, or at least benign, to think of another race as superhuman, researchers suggest that the superhumanization bias carries other consequences. For example, aggressive police responses to black juveniles may seem justified in part because they are believed to have abilities that white juveniles do not. The data also suggest an assumption that superhumans don’t experience pain like the rest of us, perhaps leading to the assumption that they don’t require the same level of care and support.

These findings are significant for religious studies because ideas about the racial other inform the religious imagination. African Studies scholar Adam McGee has argued that “voodoo,” as portrayed in films from The Serpent and the Rainbow to The Princess and the Frog, is an imaginary religion that uses blacks with supernatural powers as an outlet for racist fantasies. In 1996 the idea of superhuman blacks elided into a panic over adolescent “superpredators,” with conservative pundits speaking in apocalyptic tones about how a generation of adolescent gang members born in a state of “moral poverty” was poised to destroy society (which could only be saved by a return to “true religion).

Other races have likewise been “superhumanized” in the American religious imagination. Philip Jenkins has written on how the New Age movement reimagined Native Americans from subhuman savages to superhuman mystics, while Donald Lopez has written on the superhumanization of Tibetans, which goes back at least to the Theosophical movement of the nineteenth century. Jane Iwamura has written on the superhuman abilities ascribed to Asians in shows like Kung Fu.

The real significance of this study is the possibility that these sorts of racial mythologies aren’t simply the purview of historians but can be studied scientifically, which may lead to a more serious conversation about how our fantasies about the mystical Other play out in our society. The first step to countering our racial and cultural prejudices is admitting to ourselves that they exist.

18 Comments

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    There are two ways of dehumanizing people. Treat them as something beneath you, or caricature them as something above you.

  • tojby_2000@yahoo.com' apotropoxy says:

    Many here think the aboriginal population of the northern half of the western hemisphere is innately superior to the European migrationists because the native population is ‘closer to nature’… what ever that means. The rest think they are innately inferior for the same reason.
    Many Christian religionists believe that Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists etc. are under the sway of the deity (unacknowledged) they call Satan.
    Religion is the manifestation of mental illness.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    The supposed superiority of natives is a holdover from Rousseau’s romanticism, based upon the premise that “civilization” was an inherently corrupting influence. Rousseau developed his theories completely unencumbered by any actual experience, and his theories have a corresponding epistemic weight.

  • tojby_2000@yahoo.com' apotropoxy says:

    Yup

  • jscott1194@yahoo.com' Sailingsoul says:

    Thanks for the big laugh! LMAO!

  • whitenerel@gmail.com' GregWhitenerel says:

    Are you saying that his experience in corrupt european society did not give him a perspective to make such judgement or are you saying that native culture was incapable of being superior to one that eventually dominated it through superior military technology?

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    What I am saying is that romantic ideals with no observational basis carry no epistemic weight. Rousseau’s theory was based on the assumption that god had created people, and that in their natural state, people were superior because they were closer to the state in which god had created them. Civilization, being man-made, was an inherently corrupting influence.
    Much of this was in response to Hobbes’s claim that prior to the development of civilization, life was “nasty, brutish and short.” I make no claims about the relative merits of indigenous North American culture.

  • awerling@gmail.com' andrew123456789 says:

    As a “white person,” I don’t do this, haven’t caught myself doing this anyway. But it’s not like we’re the Borg or a damn hive. Truly, like with any group, each individual has the capacity to think for himself or herself.

  • bosears@resistingdefamation.org' Bo_Sears says:

    This study is simply another stitch in the anti-white narrative, as well as being supremacist in nature, and deceptive about the entire issue. It is supremacist by applying the tools of their trade to only one set of beliefs and interactions, and only one way in direction at that. That is the kind of study that sets out to prove what it wishes to prove by excluding any comparative information with other demographic affinity groups.

    In addition, it is bigoted by seeking to suppress the role of diversity among the diverse white Americans. The best piece of evidence about our diversity is the wide range of IQ points we score on those tests…it turns out that about 1/2 of the diverse white Americans fall beneath 100 points, and about 1/2 fall above 100 points on the IQ tests. To expect some superstitious person with an 80 IQ score to understand the various invisible forces of nature in the same way that a person with a 120 IQ score does is bigoted in the extreme.

  • judithmax@comcast.net' Judith Maxfield says:

    I admit I can’t even read this whole thing. I’m white, and never had the thought pass through my brain. Is this dumber than dumb? Maybe read it another time when Im bored, which is hardly never.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    Obviously most white people don’t literally believe that black people are magic. But they certainly tend to cast people of color for mystical roles, like Tia Dalma in Pirates of the Caribbean, playing on racially-charged stereotypes. The black mystic trope comes from somewhere, and it has a continuing impact somewhere.

  • carparts661@gmail.com' Tariq says:

    By the fact whites always refer to the IQ test show their bigotry. Everyone knows the test was created by Fascist Germany as a way of ethical cleansing. Lewis Truman as well. The test is completely westernized and it’s culturally biased. There is not way it measures intelligence accurately because every thing on there is a skill that can be taught or not taught. The word “Intelligence” is used very vaguely when it comes to the I.Q. And if the country was not in the hands of the European who controls and fashions everything in favor of himself the outcomes of the test would differ greatly.

  • drwillia@gmu.edu' Dr Dave says:

    The Magic Negro theme goes back well before SPike Lee. It can be found in Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1800s and clearly articulated by Ralph Ellison in his 1953 essay “The Black Mask of HUmanity.” James Baldwin references it as well arguing that whites see blacks as walking symbols of their own primitive subconscious selves, THus in orthodox eras that believe in original sin, the id, and black people as symbols of it, are seen as evil. But in romantic eras, when the self is more noble savage than beast, black people are seen as close to a benevolent nature. So the romantic Emerson supported abolition, and the let it all hang out hippies of the 1960s also embraced letting blacks out of their cage. The question is how we see ourselves. If the self is seen as evil, so are blacks; if the self is seen as trustworthy, In my book “Searching for God in the SIxties” I argue that a neo-orthodox emphasis on sin in the 50s was replaced in the sixties by a romantic letting of the id out of the cage, only to find that the light at the end of the tunnel of consciousness was the gleam in Manson’s eye. Ellison’s poipnt is that black people are innocent victims of whites’ conflicts over the true nature of the self.

  • bosears@resistingdefamation.org' Bo_Sears says:

    My reference to IQ scores does not refer to anyone but the diverse white American peoples. It does appear to have a way to show diversity among the white demographic, but we don’t know of any position showing its applicability to other demographic groups. See our syllabus at Resistingdefamation dot org for additional enlightenment.

  • drwillia@gmu.edu' Dr Dave says:

    ps: The perfect recent example of the Magic Negro in film is “The legend of Bagger Vance” where Will Smith floats out of the fog to teach a distressed white golfer how to get back in touch with his inner self and be a great golfer again, before he fades back into the fog at the end,

  • efaber77@gmail.com' magicblk says:

    Obviously black people have been using their powers in front of white, Didn’t we talk about this at the last magical black people meeting? I thought we all agreed to keep a low profile and no use of powers while in view of whites

  • bigrstew1@aol.com' Ron says:

    Odd you should mention the Borg, but when I saw them on star trek for the first time I instinctively thought Germans, people of color worst enemy. Assimilation = genetic experimentation. It seems the series backed off this in the next few episodes but I’m sure the writers had this in mind. I do think some biases are encoded in dna like fear of hideous German intelligence. Blacks and witchcraft etc.

  • awerling@gmail.com' andrew123456789 says:

    I hear you, but now you’re generalizing about Germans. Perhaps you mean Nazis. Not exactly synonymous.

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