I was just arguing with someone about the definition of racism. He seemed to believe that racism was all about hate, that if you didn't hate you weren't racist. So I proposed the following thought experiment: Suppose you're a white person living in a society in which nobody hates anyone, but everyone believes everyone else is racist. You're sitting in a coffee shop full of white customers, when in walks a black customer. You don't mind, but you look around a bit because you want to see how the other customers react. The shopkeeper looks nervous, too, and seems to be trying to get the black customer to leave, pretending not to notice them at first, then when that doesn't work, serving them very brusquely and putting their drink in a to-go cup instead of a china mug. It seems a little rude, actually, but you don't say anything because, well, it's none of your business and anyway nobody else will back you up, since as far as you know, you're the only person who doesn't hate blacks. (You don't know it, of course, but the only reason the shopkeeper is acting this way is because she's worried she'll lose you as a customer if she doesn't get rid of the black customer.)
This dynamic applies throughout this hate-free society. Black applicants have trouble getting hired, getting loans for housing, getting witnesses to exonerate them when accused of crimes, etc. Nobody hates them, but everybody thinks everybody else does, and nobody wants to anger the majority. Maybe some people even go out of their way to pander to what they think the majority wants. Maybe the coffee shop puts up a sign "No Colored" and refuses to serve black customers at all. Not out of hate, but just because they think (perhaps even accurately) that the black customers they lose spend less than the white customers they'll gain. Just a business decision, no racist motives involved. Maybe a politician decides to pander even more, promising policies of segregation and selective advantages for whites, not because he actually hates blacks but because he wants white votes. And, depending on how cleverly he makes his pitch, it might actually work. After all, if he offers a 10% tax cut to all whites, for example, it's pretty easy to rationalize that isn't really taking anything away from anyone else (even though it is), so hey, why not vote for it?
And so, you could end up with a full-blown apartheid state, full of aggressively discriminatory policies and institutions, in which each and every person can still quite sincerely and honestly profess not to hate anyone. Not a single racist to be found anywhere, and yet a society that is every bit as thoroughly and consistently racist as if it were deliberately set up by racists.
Now imagine someone protests this state of affairs, and suggests that maybe we should reform some of these unjust institutions that just happen to have these racist effects. You might wholeheartedly agree in principle, because after all you’re not racist. But that 10% tax break for whites? Hey, you need that; how else can you afford to support your family? And you’re not racist; why should you be punished by a tax hike? That might be going a little too far, and so maybe you voice some opposition to the idea. Pretty soon you’re actively opposing efforts to implement the sorts of changes that a truly equal society would require. And now you’re acting like a racist, though not because you hate anyone because golly you know deep down you really truly don’t hate anyone. You just don’t think it’s fair that you should have to give up any of the advantages you’ve come to feel entitled to. But heck no, you're not racist, are you? Of course not! And anyone who says so just doesn't understand the real you, right?
This isn’t quite the sort of world we live in, but only because in our world, there actually are people who genuinely and openly hate on the basis of race, though I suspect there are relatively few of them. Most people today really like to think they’re not racist, and if hatred were a necessary ingredient of racism, then they’d be right.
But as the thought experiment shows, you don’t need hate to have a thoroughly racist society. You don’t even need indifference. Maybe you weep the sincerest tears of private anguish at the racial injustice of your society, and maybe your participation in these institutions and practices is with the greatest reluctance, but remember that every single other member of your society might be weeping their own tears just as sincerely over the very same injustice, and yet somehow it persists, because nobody is willing to do anything about it.
And believing “I’m not racist!” is one of the ways we tell ourselves we don’t have to.