Apparently, a bunch of white people seem to think that black people possess magical powers based solely on the color of their skin. While I’m not about to completely refute the existence of supernatural forces, I can say that, for the record, a person’s race has nothing to with their magical abilities.

Virtually Every State Was Involved

In a paper recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, a team of researchers found evidence to suggest that the "superhumanization" and the "dehumanization" of blacks is two sides of the same racist coin.

“The study is not regionally based as it involved students and online workers from around the country completing the task. Virtually every state was represented,” Dr. Adam Waytz, lead researcher of the project, told Medical Daily in an email.

The first experiment conducted by the researchers was of word association. White participants were asked to associate certain words to images of a person. Results showed that whites were more likely to associate "supernatural words," such as ghost, paranormal, and magic, to pictures of black people, New York Magazine reported. They were also more likely to associate "human words," such as person, individual, civilian, and citizen, to pictures of white people. These results remained consistent, even as researchers varied the experiments in order to rule out the possibility of bias.

Black Magic

The third test was a bit more specific. In it, participants were shown images of both a white person and a black person and were asked to choose which person they believed possessed a series of supernatural abilities. The questions included:

  • Which person is more likely to have superhuman skin that is thick enough that it can withstand the pain of burning hot coals?
  • Which person is more capable of using their supernatural powers to suppress hunger and thirst?
  • Which person is more capable of using supernatural powers to read a person’s mind by touching the person’s head?
  • Which person is more capable of surviving a fall from an airplane without breaking a bone through the use of supernatural powers?
  • Which personal has supernatural quickness that makes them capable of running faster than a fighter jet?
  • Which person has supernatural strength that makes them capable of lifting up a tank?

White people chose an image of a black person an overwhelming 63.5 percent of the time for everything except for the abilities to survive a plane crash and read minds. According to the researchers, the studies "demonstrate this phenomenon at an explicit level," showing that "whites preferentially attribute superhuman capacities to blacks versus whites," while the final study "specifically shows superhumanization of blacks predicts denial of pain to Black versus White targets."

Where Does This Superhumanization Come From?

The authors of the study suggest that "perhaps people assume that blacks possess extra (superhuman) strength that enables them to endure violence more easily than other humans." This belief is supported by research that shows blacks are constantly undertreated for pain when compared to patients of other ethnicities. It’s suggested the roots of this racial bias regarding others' pain is “rooted in perceptions of status, and the privilege (or hardship) status confers,” the authors wrote.

The portrayal of Voodoo in American pop culture may also play a role. Voodoo was first practiced by the African slaves brought to America and the Caribbean. It is a combination of African, Catholic, and Native American traditions, The Huffington Post reported. Voodoo is most commonly practiced in New Orleans and Haiti, but has spread more or less throughout America and the Caribbean.

A fear of a “foreign” religion and Hollywood sensationalism has led many to associate Voodoo and those who practice the faith as “witch doctors” possessing dangerous magic that can hurt and even kill others. Pop culture’s depiction of the witch doctor with his Voodoo dolls and dark magic may have contributed to this association, especially in areas where Voodoo is commonly practiced, such as the American South.

To be fair, the study was only done on white participants, so at the moment, it's unknown if this “superhumanization” of blacks is shared by others, or if people simply view those outside of their racial group as possessing magical powers.

"It is possible that blacks perceive whites as superhuman and these findings are just driven by general unfamiliarity," Waytz said.

Ideas such as blacks having extra muscles or bones in their legs to explain their sports abilities, or the glorification of the male genitalia is prominent in society, and only Waytz speculates they may have driven this superhumanizatoin of black individuals.

"We also believe that people might consider other ethnic groups such as Native Americans or Asian Americans to have different types of supernatural qualities as well, based on stereotypes," Waytz explained.

For example, future studies may prove that Asians are superhumanized with as having enhanced intelligence. In conclusion, though, the team found that it’s indisputable that superhumanization of blacks not only exists but is also "dehumanizing and consequential."

Source: Waytz A, Hoffman KM, Trawalter S. A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perception of Blacks. Social Psychological & Personality Science.