Liya Yu — Writing. Neuropolitics. Activism.

TagU.S. politics

The mystical, magical negro who threatened me

I write this with some urgency, that’s why this post is more hastily written than usual. As you surely have heard, the US is gripped by a wave of police brutality ending in the tragic deaths of young black men such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and most recently, Eric Garner in New York. Right now, people are protesting in the streets of New York against the acquittal of the police officer who killed Garner with a chokehold.

In the stilted and nonchalant seminar proceedings at Columbia University’s Political Science Department, the current protests are hardly mentioned (maybe not incidentally, black Ph.D. students and faculty are severely underrepresented there), but sometimes, a comment still crops up in a way that makes you realize that this uncomfortable reality is nonetheless on people’s minds, especially those who might have brothers, nephews and cousins who are potential targets of that very police brutality.

I have written before about dehumanization of out-groups and how the way we stereotype the lowest social groups through disgust reactions. Social neuroscientists have subsequently shown that disgust towards ‘the lowest of the low’ can lead to dehumanizing them, and that this dehumanization can be detected at the brain level. The groundbreaking work done by Susan Fiske and her colleagues at Princeton on stereotypes shook up the psychology world because it showed that stereotypes are often mixed, whereas people previously assumed that stereotypes were straightforwardly negative.

For example, in the US, Asians and Jews are perceived as low in warmth but high in competence, putting them into the ‘envy’ category of stereotypes. You might have encountered a situation like this yourself: someone treats you based on your skin color, gender or nationality in a way that could be interpreted as complimentary, but it just makes you feel awkward and sometimes even angry. Stereotyping is such a slippery social phenomenon because it often appears as a mixed bag of simultaneously negative and positive ascription of traits.

It’s important to point this out because otherwise, stereotyped or even worse, dehumanized groups, can quickly be silenced in their protest against mistreatment by telling them that someone ‘meant well’ with that comment. One of my students who grew up in Kansas as a Chinese-American told me that her classmates and teachers often portrayed her as a kind of clever and efficient machine without feelings (this is actually called mechanistic dehumanization; Asian Americans are usually targets of this, see Haslam 2006). On top of this, one of the social behaviors resulting out of envy is aggression. So even if a stereotype contains ‘positive’ elements, it can still lead to actual treatment of the stereotyped person that is far from benign.

How is all of this connected to the police brutality committed against Brown, Rice and Garner? Coinciding with the violence committed against these young African-American men, social psychologists at Northwestern University have discovered something called superhumanization, which Whites commonly ascribe to Blacks. Previously, the film director Spike Lee has criticized the depiction of the “mystical, magical negro” in films and popular culture. Now, this new research shows that White Americans like to ascribe supernatural, magical, or paranormal characteristics to Blacks, and as a result of it, deny them feelings of pain (Waytz, Hoffman, & Trawalter 2014).

If you look at the testimony of Darren Wilson, the White police officer who shot the unarmed Michael Brown eight times, superhumanization is written all over it. Wilson describes Brown as this abnormally tall Hulk Hogan with a face that looked like “a demon” . In his description of the incident, Wilson repeats over and over how supernaturally tall Brown appeared and how he was intimidated by the sheer appearance of this ‘superhuman’. You can imagine how the ensuing denial of pain by Wilson towards Brown might have resulted in the excessive and cruel firing of so many shots.

Following from this, it’s important to realize that dehumanizing, just as stereotyping, doesn’t manifest itself always in a straightforward way. People who are being superhumanized will probably be told that this is meant as a compliment, that they shouldn’t take it so seriously. The cognitive research on this shows though that even seemingly complimentary perceptions of an out-group can result in hurtful and even violent treatment, and that what we have to look out for in situations of exclusion and discrimination – beyond the grand ideological debates on the Left and Right on what constitutes exclusion, racism etc. – is whether someone is able to see us as fully human.


Haslam, N. (2006) Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10, 3, 252-264.

Waytz, A., Hoffman, K.M., & Trawalter, S. (2014) A Superhumanization bias in Whites‘ perception of Blacks. Social Psychological and Personality Science, published online 8 October, 1-8.


Equality in America or The Thoughtful Eugenicist

(a longer post than usual, please forgive!)

The dim, old-fashioned street lights scattered around Independence Park glow into the night like lighthouses in a pitch-black sea.

I am in Philadelphia on a research trip to the American Philosophical Society, where I have been pouring over the archives of 20th century American eugenicists. Yes, eugenicists: those people associated today with Nazism, discredited population control programs, scientific fanaticism and general nuttiness. But the truth, as I was finding out during my day at the archives, is less simple than that. You can find eugenicists in pre-and post-War America amongst respected academics, scientists, law makers, Ivy League trustees, feminists, Leftist Progressives and Conservatives, and even Democratic Presidents – in short, not amongst people whom you would commonly think of as evil and crazy.

The problem with eugenics is that as an idea, it is seductive. Frederick Osborn, the influential proponent of ‘positive eugenics’ in the post-war period, was at pains to resuscitate eugenics as a respectable science and political ideology. He wanted to rid eugenics off its association with racism and authoritarianism and reinvent it as a plausible idea that would be accepted by any rational and moderate person concerned about the future of society. He called this reinvented vision ‘the thoughtful eugenicist’.

How did Osborn go about doing this? First of all, he stressed that eugenics was not a racist ideology. His new eugenics would have nothing to do with ‘negative eugenics’ practiced in places such as Nazi Germany and supported by pre-war US eugenicists, where the goal was to forcefully eradicate the unwanted from the gene pool. Incidentally, that day in the archives I stumbled across a diary entry by Osborn describing in hastily penciled entries how he witnessed the liberation of the concentration camp in Dachau in May 1945. He had been there, faced the emaciated figures staring speechlessly back at him, and was bewildered by a fellow US officer who kept praising the German troops for their superior discipline in the middle of those eerie surroundings.

Osborn proclaimed that ‘positive eugenics’ would not be centered on heredity and racial cleansing, but on the effect that social environments have on people’s intelligence and success in life instead. The point was to improve urban development (the urban poor are the modern eugenicist’s worst nightmare), childcare, welfare and education, so that the environment would improve people and naturally select those who were more able. The final goal was for the successful class to have more children than the less intelligent and poorer classes. In Osborn’s fantasy, the world would then gradually become a place populated only by superior people.

Osborn’s big dreams sound chillingly seductive in our overpopulated, neoliberal world. As I step out of the doors of the American Philosophical Society, a relentless wind blows across the historical pebble streets. There are only two tourists scuffling along in the dark. The police officers guarding Independence Hall tonight discuss their weekly shifts and girlfriends with ears reddened from the cold. In the distance, Liberty Bell is illuminated like a lonely, cracked soul.

I look back at the compact square, the small alleys, the humble two-level building that is Independence Hall itself. It is difficult to imagine that one of the most influential Declarations in history was signed in this humble place with its neat little window frames. It is even harder to imagine how the people who occupied these buildings in the 18th century would have understood Osborn’s fears and appreciated his fantasy of the genetically perfected society. One knows this, of course – how pre-modern horizons were different from ours and so on, but for me, being physically in Philadelphia’s deserted town center in this very moment, the chasm between the differing ideas of equality in the course of this country’s history strikes home with me with particular force.

Osborn’s ideas were neither as benign as he presented them, nor were they marginal in their political impact, as many Americans would believe today. New historical research revealed that state-led sterilization of the ‘feebleminded’, urban poor, marginalized, and mentally ill continued into the post-War years in the US, as late as into the 1970s (King and Hansen, 2013). The idea behind those traumatizing and physically abusive sterilizations was derived from the ‘positive eugenics’ proposed by people like Osborn. By barring these particular people from having children, eugenicists believed that society was protecting itself from unwanted traits, urban crime and general decay.

Today, state-led sterilizations are still wide-spread. In our overpopulated, global warming-ridden, increasingly class-divided world, competition over resources is putting huge pressures on governments to at least pretend to be doing something. Sterilization of the poor, the mentally disabled and women (male sterilization is much less invasive, however, women are the ones that are usually targeted) can appear like a quick fix out of the misery. Only when things go wrong, like the deaths following the botched sterilizations in India recently, do sterilization policies make news headlines.

I step into the warm entry hall of one of the buildings on Chestnut Street. I have arrived at the book launch of Danielle Allen’s new book on the Declaration of Independence, which she reinterprets as a defense of equality (instead of liberty, as is usually the case). Danielle Allen is probably one of the most powerful political philosophers in this country: a Princeton professor and trustee, she chairs the Pulitzer prize committee and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

She embodies the story of American inequality in her own family – her mother is from a WASP background, her father’s ancestors came to the country as slaves from the Caribbean. And indeed, her book, although mainly an eloquently argued and insightfully analyzed piece of one of the most revered and yet still insufficiently read texts in US history, is really a book about identity and racial inequality. In the front, you can see two pictures provocatively lined up against each other. One is of a drawing of the founding fathers, immersed in discussion in a wood-paneled room in Independence Hall, the other is a photograph depicting a class room in which the students are mostly black.

This classroom was the place where Allen led a sort of double-identity when she was teaching back at the University of Chicago. In the day time, she would teach a young, mostly White undergraduate elite population; at nights, she taught night courses to financially struggling, adult students with kids and insecure jobs, who were mostly black. With both, she read the Declaration. But the night students were the ones who responded to the Declaration in a deeper existential way, reading it as a treatise of self-empowerment and a defense of equality, above all.

The room is filled with members of the American Philosophical Society. With Allen standing on the stage, it is hard not to notice the unequal representation of America amongst the audience itself: most people are White and old – in other words, people who have the leisure and confidence to attend a book launch in prestigious settings on a weekday night. You can feel how pleased the audience is to see a successful black woman speaking to the Society; behind me, I hear comments such as “She is really smart, isn’t she!” which, between the lines, reads as “How lovely to have a black woman speaking tonight!”. As much as Americans love to perpetuate the myth of equality, they equally love to congratulate themselves on diversity.

Race comes up again, like a curse. A man in the first row raises his hand to ask a question. “If we really implement the political equality that you demand, we could be hurting ourselves because some people are simply not equal. I am not making a racial point here –“, he smiles conspiratorially at Allen, “but a biological point. Some people are born with disabilities and other defects. Letting them participate equally in decisions that require rational intelligence is maybe…unwise.” I cannot believe my ears. Here sits Frederick Osborn reincarnated, or at least, I am witnessing for the first time a thoughtful eugenicist!

I can see that Allen is clearly uncomfortable, not sure what to respond. She gives an eloquent, abstract answer about how equality applies to everyone and should be understood in a very broad sense. But then she says something that amazes me. “But you do have a point, sure. A drug user for example would pose a problem for collective decision-making, since they cannot make rational decisions themselves.” I am amazed because Allen has unconsciously picked a group that is commonly grouped within the disgust stereotype group in the US, and therefore one of the most dehumanized groups in society (I have written previously about the stereotype content model and dehumanization).

I realize suddenly that equality is a very difficult cognitive feat for anyone, whether for our thoughtful eugenicist or brilliant Ivy League professor. We wish we could see everyone as equal, but dehumanization of others is lurking behind our most base fears and anxieties, as well as our most noble dreams and social visions.

I escape the cheese and wine reception (since we are in the US, they also offer Mountain Dew to accompany your Roquefort) and step back onto the dark streets of Philadelphia. The police officers have moved to another spot. The wind has calmed down, but it is still bitterly cold. I should go back to my hotel, but I begin walking slowly towards Liberty Bell and its surrounding lights.