News & Politics

Fear on the Brain: People Perceive Black Men as Being Bigger, Stronger and More Aggressive Than They Actually Are

Superhumanization of black folks has dangerous consequences.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / kurhan

When an unarmed black person is killed by police, the public is often asked to believe the victim’s superhuman strength made lethal force the only possible option. In his grand jury testimony, Darren Wilson—6’4” and 210 pounds—described Michael Brown—6’5” and 290 pounds—as a “demon” with “immense power” who made him feel like a “five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”

The president of the Cleveland police officers' union described Tamir Rice, a boy playing with a toy gun in a public park, as “a 12-year-old in an adult body.” 

Michael Slager’s murder trial defense was that he "felt threatened” by Walter Scott, who was running away from him when Slager fired eight shots at his receding back. The jury saw the same unambiguous cellphone footage of the cold-blooded murder the rest of us did, but declined to convict him. Slager’s defense worked not just because black life is devalued, but because Slager—along with the other killers of unarmed black people mentioned above—effectively exploited the longheld American myth equating blackness with strength and criminality.

A new study yet again confirms the pervasiveness of this notion, with researchers concluding that people see “black men as larger, stronger, and more physically formidable than young white men.” The stereotype, researchers write, “distorts perceptions of size and physical formidability, which in turn can distort decisions about the use of force against black crime suspects.”

Study authors showed participants photos of 90 high school football players and asked them to guess their heights and weights. Though the pictures depicted students of similar heights and weights, respondents consistently assumed the black players were “taller and heavier.” In another test, when given headshots of the same athletes’ faces and a series of bodies of varying muscularity to pair them with, participants matched black subjects with “larger, more muscular, and thus more formidable physiques.”

It’s worth noting that the more Afrocentric the young mens’ faces appeared—meaning those with “darker skin tone or more blackprototypic features”—the more likely study participants perceived them as “larger, stronger, and more dangerous than targets who looked more prototypically white.” This held true whether the men in the pictures were white or black. These findings are consistent with previous studies cited by researchers. “For example, participants in a first-person shooter task mistakenly shot unarmed white targets who looked less prototypically white,” study authors write, “and more Afrocentric-looking individuals may be punished more severely in court even to the point of execution.”

The tendency to overestimate the strength and stature of black men showed up in both black and white study participants, not a surprising finding considering the dominant culture imprints on all of us. But only white people believed those attributes correlated with a likelihood to hurt others. Researchers found that white study subjects saw “black men as more capable of harm than white men” and also rated “the use of force against black men [by police] as more justified than the use of force against white men.” Not all bias is equal in its assumptions. As study authors note, “black participants' size judgments do not seem to lead to broader inferences regarding greater harm capability of blacks than whites.”

The notion of black people as physical marvels, impervious to pain and able to carry out extraordinary feats of strength was a convenient stereotype for slave owners attempting to justify the immorality of slavery.

"There's a long history of the super-humanization of blacks," social psychology researcher Kelly Hoffman told NPR. "So going all the way back to slavery. And then with—physicians, you know, in the late 1800s, early 1900s characterized blacks as having these magical bodies that were able to withstand pain and surgical procedures. And then today in contemporary times, blacks are portrayed as superhuman in a lot of the media."

These new findings build on a mountain of existing research examining white superhumanization of black bodies. In one study, white people were shown side-by-side photos of black and white faces and asked which person was “more likely to have superhuman skin that is thick enough that it can withstand the pain of burning hot coals” and which person “is more capable of surviving a fall from an airplane without breaking a bone through the use of supernatural powers?” More than 63 percent of the time, the black person was chosen. When the questions posed were about capability at mundane everyday tasks, such as walking a dog or picking an avocado in the store, black people were selected only 46 percent of the time. In other words, white people are more likely to believe black people have fireproof skin than to believe black people can properly judge avocados for ripeness.

This superhumanization of black people isn’t just dumb, it’s dangerous. Previous experiments have found that white people see black boys as older and less innocent than their white peers, who are allowed to have the childhoods and benefit of the doubt they deserve. This bias is undoubtedly tied to the fact that black kids as young as preschool age are more likely to be suspended and expelled from school than white kids. Black children are also more often tried as adults and handed longer sentences than their white peers for the same crimes. Fallacious and dehumanizing falsehoods about black strength likely help explain why studies find white people, including white doctors, believe black people are less susceptible to pain. The result is that white physicians are less likely to treat black patients with the same levels of care they give to whites. Studies show “African Americans suffering from illnesses such as renal failure, cardiac disease and cancer are...less likely to be recommended curative care by their physicians than whites, even when insurance coverage is the same.”

There’s also the issue of police shootings, which disproportionately target black men. Mic’s Mathew Rodriguez rounds up the stats showing the disturbing lethal impact of size bias for black men. One analysis of 2014-early 2015 police killings showed that 41 percent of those killed were black, while a 2015 Washington Post investigation found that of the 60 unarmed people killed in the first eight months of the year, 40% were black men, despite black men accounting for only 6% of the U.S. population. Between June 2015 and July 2016, the Baton Rouge police department killed only black men. 

“Unarmed black men are disproportionately more likely to be shot and killed by police, and often these killings are accompanied by explanations that cite the physical size of the person shot,” study author John Paul Wilson of Montclair State University said in a press release. “Our research suggests that these descriptions may reflect stereotypes of black males that do not seem to comport with reality.”

In other words, blackness is not a superpower. Black humanity is not subjective. And magical negroes exist only in the movies.

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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