If you’ve ever watched a movie, you’re surely aware of the “magical negro” cliche. You’ve all seen him: Morpheus from the Matrix, Bagger Vance, Shaquille O’Neil in Kazaam, John Coffey in The Green Mile. The term was popularized by filmmaker Spike Lee, who pointed out that the “Super-Duper Magical Negro” exists in many films.
“These films all have these magical, mystical Negroes who show up as some sort of spirit or angel, but only to benefit the white characters,” Lee famously said in his criticism of the stereotype.
Often, he is simply an extremely wise African-American character who exists only to sherpa the white main character through his trials and tribulations. Other times, he actually possesses superhuman powers.
In all cases, the entire scenario is offensive. It has been parodied numerous times, notably through Rufus in Dogma. The term has even been applied to President Barack Obama first by LA Times columnist David Ehrenstein, and later by Rush Limbaugh who took the characterization and ran with it.
Ehrenstein wrote in 2008,
The Magic Negro is a figure of postmodern folk culture, coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure who emerged in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. “He has no past, he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist,” reads the description on Wikipedia .
He’s there to assuage white “guilt” (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.
As might be expected, this figure is chiefly cinematic — embodied by such noted performers as Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Scatman Crothers, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Smith and, most recently, Don Cheadle. And that’s not to mention a certain basketball player whose very nickname is “Magic.”
Limbaugh, however, really owned the term after he saw fit to seize upon the opportunity to put the term to music:
“So your attempt to assuage all of your white guilt by supporting Obama is worthless because you’re just — you’re just exhibiting racism because you know he’s not a real black,” Limbaugh said of Ehrenstein’s op-ed. “He’s an empty vessel. Nobody knows enough about him to support him on the basis of policy or substance. And so the white people who are supporting Barack Obama, the “Magic Negro,” are doing so precisely because he’s the “Magic Negro.” By supporting him, white people get to assuage their guilt over this nation’s history with slavery and the Confederacy and all this other tripe.”
It turns out that white people actually believe in the concept of the “Magical Negro,” in a sense. A recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, explores the idea that black people have traditionally been dehumanized by this concept “from constitutional denial of full legal personhood to enslavement.”
UPI notes that:
In the first of a series of five studies, researchers Kelly Marie Hoffman and Sophie Trawalter of the University of Virginia and Adam Waytz of Northwestern University performed Implicit Association Tests and found white participants were more likely to link words commonly associated with the supernatural, (ghost, paranormal, spirit, wizard, supernatural, magic, mystical), to pictures of black people, and more likely to link seven “human words,” (person, individual, humanity, people, civilian, mankind, citizen), to pictures of white people.
In the second test — to account for the possibility that the bias in test one occurred in part because of White-Human associations as opposed to Black-Superhuman associations — the researchers used categorization tasks, again asking participants to quickly associate a word with an image, this time with more groupings, (Black/Human, Black/Superhuman, Black/Subhuman, White/Human, White/Superhuman, White/Subhuman), and asking participants to quickly sort words as belonging to a category based on the image of a face flashed on the screen. They found the same bias present as in study one.
In another test, participants were shown pictures of a white person and a black person and asked to choose:
1 Which person “is more likely to have superhuman skin that is thick enough that it can withstand the pain of burning hot coals?”2 Which person “is more capable of using their supernatural powers to suppress hunger and thirst?”
3 Which person “is more capable of using supernatural powers to read a person’s mind by touching the person’s head?”
4 Which person “is more capable of surviving a fall from an airplane without breaking a bone through the use of supernatural powers?”
5 Which person “has supernatural quickness that makes them capable of running faster than a fighter jet?”
6 Which person “has supernatural strength that makes them capable of lifting up a tank?”
Of those six questions, the African-American man was chosen 63.5 percent of the time. The study notes that:
Studies 3-4 demonstrate this phenomenon at an explicit level, showing that
Whites preferentially attribute superhuman capacities to Blacks versus Whites, and Study 4 specifically shows superhumanization of Blacks predicts denial of pain to Black versus White targets Together, these studies demonstrate a novel and potentially detrimental process through which Whites perceive Blacks..
We often think of negative stereotypes — Asians can’t drive, women aren’t as smart as men, all Muslims are terrorists, Jewish people are greedy — but we never consider the negative impact of positive stereotypes — black people have large penises and are awesome at basketball, Asians are good at math — on society, no matter how complimentary they seem.
However, these biased views can and do have a real and negative impact. Earlier research by the same authors revealed that nurses of any race see black patients as less sensitive to pain than white patients. The authors also suggest that this superhumanization of African-Americans may explain white tolerance for police brutality against African-Americans — something that is readily apparent in our country today.
“Perhaps people assume that Blacks possess extra (i.e., superhuman) strength which enables them to endure violence more easily than other humans,” the authors write, explaining that the results “might also explain why people consider Black juveniles to be more ‘adult’ than White juveniles when judging culpability” — as is the case with Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen who was gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
The authors say they chose to focus on the attribution of superhuman qualities to black people “because of suggestive historical, anecdotal, and quantitative empirical evidence that such a bias exists,” and that the bias may apply to other races as well.
“For now,” they say, “the present research provides evidence of a superhumanization bias that, despite its ostensible distinction from other forms of prejudice, may be just as dehumanizing and consequential.”