Questions Skew Answers about White Privilege

At first, this seems like a really simple question: Do you believe in Santa Claus?

But scholars and researchers know that this question is actually a mine field of problems.

“Believe” is a problematic verb, and before anyone can answer or anyone can interpret the answers, we must all agree on what “Santa Claus” means.

Does “Santa Claus” mean a literal man who travels the world and crawls down chimneys to deliver toys? Or does it mean some historical “Santa Claus” who has become mythologized and represents a spirit of Christmas?

In other words, especially in polling designed to uncover better understanding of an issue or phenomenon, the questions asked and how the terms in those questions are defined (if at all) create the answers and thus shape the conclusions drawn from those answers.

Take for example Toplines and Crosstabs December 2021 National Poll: CRT & Race in America.

This poll gathers data on several aspects of the Critical Race Theory debates driven by Republicans and conservatives across the U.S. But the framing skews (and likely distorts) what people know, what people think, and what people believe about CRT and white privilege. Consider the following:

Two problems are created by the framing above. First, note how “white privilege” is defined for the respondents: “White people in the U.S. have certain advantages [emphasis added] because of the color of their skin.”

Notably during the Trump era, certain segments of white people who support Trump have been very vocal about rejecting the concept of “white privilege.” Typically, these white people point to white poverty and white failure to reject—with evidence, they think—the concept of “advantage.”

The question defining “white privilege” as an “advantage” very likely reduces the number of respondents expressing support for or nuanced understanding of the concept. And that framing is inaccurate.

“White privilege” is better defined as the lack of barriers that are race-based for white people.

When white people find themselves in poverty, it is rarely because they are white; when white people fail, it is rarely because they are white.

There is not pop culture rhetoric about “driving while white” or “jogging while white” because race is rarely the key factor in negative interactions for white people, notably interacting with police or other authority figures (or other white people).

Systemic racism manifests itself in pervasive ways for Black people in that being Black is often the key factor in life experiences for Black people. Black people do fail and suffer primarily because they are Black, and not because of their behavior or character.

White privilege is about an absence (lack of race-based barriers) and about being allowed to exist as if your race doesn’t define you. Black people do not have that opportunity; being Black is a state of perpetual awareness of being Black.

Unlike white people, then, Black people do experience existentially and systematically barriers that are race-based.

Describing “white privilege” as an advantage suggests guarantees of wealth or success that simply are not true—and thus easy to reject.

Framing “white privilege” as the absence of race-based barriers both better defines the concept and increases the likelihood that respondents can acknowledge that reality.

The second problem is the use of the word “beliefs” with CRT, which distorts and misrepresents CRT as a “theory.”

Similar to the jumbled discourse around evolution (people often claim “I don’t believe in evolution”), respondents are likely misled by the word “beliefs” since it implies the lack of empirical data and suggests CRT is simply someone’s beliefs—and not a carefully formulated theory based on rigorous scholarship.

CRT, as a scholarly theory, has a set of claims, or principles. The use of those words, “claims” or “principles,” provides, again, a fairer framing and should provide more valid data.

Together, these examples show how research erodes the validity (do the data and conclusions drawn reflect what they claim to reflect?) of a poll by the questions asked, the framing and defining of the key terms.

In the “CRT beliefs” data also note that the “white privilege” framing as an “advantage” is reinforced by the use of “enjoy”: “Whites Enjoy Certain Privileges.”

Creating a set of questions for polling requires statistical expertise, but also scholarly knowledge and experience. In this case, the poll itself seems poorly reviewed for framing in terms of fully understanding either “white privilege” or “CRT.”

Since the entire cultural debate around race, racism, white privilege, and CRT is being driven by dishonest actors and misinformed media, politicians, and members of the public, a valid poll of those topics requires accurate and nuanced clarity on the questions being asked and definitions of the terms being examined.

This poll is ambitious, but it is likely doing more harm than good for that debate.