NEW YORK – OCTOBER 13: A man dragging a box walks past a poster showing Barack Obama dressed as Superman October 13, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Ferguson, Mo., Police OfficerDarren Wilson signified a fundamental problem with race in America when he told St. Louis County grand jury that his encounter with Michael Brown, a Black and unarmed teenager, was like being in a struggle with Hulk Hogan, a professional wrestler.
The problem, highlighted in a study published recently in Social Psychological and Personality Science, is that Whites have a “superhumanization bias” when it comes to Black people — that is, they associate them with superhuman abilities, New York magazine reports.
Researchers found in the study, released in October, that Whites are quicker to associate Blacks with superhuman words like ghost, paranormal, and spirit. And the more they think Blacks are superhuman, the less they view Black people as having a capacity to feel pain, the study says.
Wilson illustrated the point in his grand jury testimony when describing the Aug. 9 physical confrontation. He said he did not believe “non-lethal” options would be “effective” against the teen, according to court papers.
“[W]hen I grabbed him [Brown], the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding Hulk Hogan.” Brown was described as 6-foot-4 and weighing well over 250 pounds. Wilson himself is nearly 6 feet, 4 inches and weighs 210 pounds, he told the grand jury.
Wilson’s Hulk Hogan description of Blacks, especially men, is not far off for most Whites.
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; are more likely to think a black person as opposed to a white person has certain superhuman abilities; and that the more they think blacks are superhuman, the less they view black people as having a capacity to feel pain.
These are weird findings, to be sure, and they run contrary to what we think of when we think of racism. While most people are familiar with the idea of seeing different ethnic or religious groups as subhuman, the researchers write that “the phenomenon of superhumanization has received virtually no empirical attention in psychology.”
While the study’s authors state that more work is needs to be done to understand the phenomenon, they suggest that superhumanization bias could help explain why some doctors undertreat Blacks for pain and why some Whites “consider Black juveniles to be more ‘adult’ than White juveniles when judging culpability,” the report says.