06/26/2013 05:25 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Paula Deen, Bad Apples, and the Perils of Denunciation

By now, just about all of us have heard the news about Paula Deen. In a legal deposition, the Southern chef admits to having used the N-word, and even to envisioning a plantation-themed party catered by African American servers. It's ugly stuff -- so much so that her employer, the Food Network, quickly cut her loose. For their part, thousands of ordinary citizens have taken to Twitter and Facebook to denounce Ms. Deen.

It's a good sign that Ms. Deen's conduct has outraged so many Americans. But while we shouldn't excuse her behavior, I find something worrisome in the collective pile-on she has received.

To social scientists, identifying someone as a "racist" -- as someone who harbors derogatory feelings and beliefs about a group of people -- is about as remarkable as identifying a person as right-handed. On this definition of racism, almost all of us are guilty. Indeed, "implicit biases" can influence our actions without us ever knowing we possess them. The difference with Ms. Deen is that she was remarkably explicit and unabashed about her behavior, as if she didn't know her words were hurtful and wrong.

Social psychologists like to distinguish between two forms of racism. The first kind, and the one we're pointing to when we denounce Ms. Deen, is called "individual" racism. It consists of prejudices embedded in individual minds. As I said, just about all of us harbor biases of this sort. The other form of racism can exist in the absence of any prejudiced minds at all. This "structural," or "institutional," racism is a property of social arrangements themselves.

To understand structural racism, consider the fact that it's often poor and minority families that live near power plants, factories, and other sources of air pollution. Did a cabal of bigots force these families into these neighborhoods? No. This residential pattern is a historical residue of government policies that prevented racial minorities from entering the real estate market and accumulating the cross-generational wealth necessary to buy into better neighborhoods. The result is called "environmental racism," and has been blamed for higher rates of respiratory illness among African American, as compared to White, youths.

Structural racism is arguably an even more pernicious social problem than individual prejudice. If you could somehow cleanse every single individual's mind of its biases, structural racism -- which doesn't require prejudiced thoughts -- would persist. When, as a society, we focus myopically on the ignorance of individuals such as Ms. Deen, we are less likely to appreciate the way mindless social institutions disadvantage entire categories of people.

Recent research by social psychologists Miguel Unzueta and Brian Lowery suggests that White Americans actively prefer to see racism as an individual, as opposed to institutional, phenomenon. The individual conception both downplays the severity of the problem (by limiting prejudice to the proverbial "few bad apples") and diverts attention away from the manner in which institutions systematically privilege Whites at the expense of racial minorities. Our fixation with Ms. Deen does nothing to overcome this resistance to seeing racism as a systemic problem.

Ms. Deen's collective shaming carries another risk. By castigating her, we tacitly proclaim our own tolerance, and self-congratulation can lead to complacency. When given the opportunity to display their own upstanding nature, people may, ironically, become less vigilant about the morality of their future behavior.

Studies by social psychologists Daniel Effron, Jessica Cameron, and Benoit Monîn bear this out. These researchers gave a group of participants the opportunity to display behavior that most would agree is non-racist: endorsing Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election. Another group of participants were given no opportunity to express their support for Obama. Compared to the control group, Obama-endorsing participants were later more likely to see a profession as more suited for Whites than for Blacks and expressed greater willingness to allocate money to an organization serving Whites at the expense of one serving Blacks.

Effron, Cameron, and Monîn called this phenomenon as "moral self-licensing." When given the chance to demonstrate their non-racist character, participants were subsequently less concerned about behaving in a racially biased fashion. We risk the same outcome when we denounce Ms. Deen. After taking the opportunity to rail against her in a Tweet, Facebook post, or newspaper editorial, we may blind ourselves to our own potential for unfair, biased, and hurtful behavior.

It's fine to take a moment to express revulsion at Paula Deen's words. But we should not let this tempt us into seeing racism as a problem of a few bad apples -- or blind us to our own prejudices.