Study: White People Think Black People Are Magical Unicorns

<a href="http://flickr.com/link-to-source-image">Ramon Espinosa</a>/AP


A new study featured in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science concludes white people may possess a “superhuman bias” against black people, and are therefore likely to attribute preternatural qualities to black people.

Jesse Singal explains 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 image of a magical black person, someone holding extraordinary mental and physical powers, has long persisted through American culture, whether it be through cringe-worthy movie roles or literature.

And the damage of such a potential bias is significant. While it’s easy to understand why most clichés are both dangerous and destructive, the study suggests white people’s tendency to cast a black person as a magical being—a stereotype that on its face some might claim is positive—is actually just as detrimental as say the image of the angry black woman, absent father, etc.

The superhuman image may be able to explain matters such as why young black men are perceived to “be more ‘adult’ than White juveniles when judging culpability,” write researchers Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman, and Sophie Trawalter. If true, such a perception could outline the overwhelming racial disparities seen in prison systems throughout the country. 

This bizarre phenomenon could even have contributed to the immense hope Americans placed on President Barack Obama in 2008. As the Boston Globe recently pointed out, back in 2007 David Ehrenstein described Obama’s campaign as such:

Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. 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.

Republicans later even attempted to make light of the stereotype with CD’s featuring a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro.”

Although the trope has been criticized for some time, researchers behind this recent study say it’s the first “empirical investigation” into the matter.

(h/t Science of Us)

 

One More Thing

And it's a big one. Mother Jones is launching a new Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on the corruption that is both the cause and result of the crisis in our democracy.

The more we thought about how Mother Jones can have the most impact right now, the more we realized that so many stories come down to corruption: People with wealth and power putting their interests first—and often getting away with it.

Our goal is to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We're aiming to create a reporting position dedicated to uncovering corruption, build a team, and let them investigate for a year—publishing our stories in a concerted window: a special issue of our magazine, video and podcast series, and a dedicated online portal so they don't get lost in the daily deluge of headlines and breaking news.

We want to go all in, and we've got seed funding to get started—but we're looking to raise $500,000 in donations this spring so we can go even bigger. You can read about why we think this project is what the moment demands and what we hope to accomplish—and if you like how it sounds, please help us go big with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate