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Black Lives Matter stirs hope for change in England's ancient city of York

Anti-racism protests swept across the U.K. in the wake of George Floyd's death, igniting a conversation about unconscious bias, Britain’s colonial past and the chasm between white and Black experiences.
People kneel as part of a Take The Knee event in York
People kneel as part of a "Take The Knee" event, in the aftermath of protests against the death of George Floyd who in York, Britain, on June 10.Lee Smith / Reuters

YORK, England — Haddy Njie had been in this historic English city a little more than a week when she first experienced racial abuse.

It was 2015. She had moved from London when a taxi driver called her the N-word and ordered her out of his cab.

“When I moved to York I was shocked by the pervasive and overtness of the racism and discrimination based on my skin color,” said Njie, as she sat on the banks of the River Ouse as it meandered near the medieval walls of this predominantly white city in northern England.

Image: Haddy Njie
Haddy Njie has set up Speak Up Diversity, a grassroots group that aims to tackle systematic and institutional racism in York. Saphora Smith / NBC News

Five years on, Njie is hopeful that people in York may now be awakening to racism, their eyes opened in part by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis in May.

“White people were all of a sudden saying, ‘Oh my God, I never understood or knew you were going through this every single day,’” said Njie, 36, who works in risk management and moved to York for a job opportunity.

Black Lives Matter and other anti-racism protests swept across the country, igniting a conversation about unconscious bias, Britain’s colonial past and the chasm between white and Black experiences.

Treasured English institutions, from the Rugby Football Union to English Heritage, which cares for historic places, pledged to do more to champion diversity or to better contextualize the past. In York, the revulsion that followed Floyd’s death prompted many to consider the racism that exists closer to home, broaching the topic over dinner, in web chats or by taking part in protests.

“It did really bring home how people have this going on all the time,” said Philip Jepson, an electronics engineer.

Image: Philip Jepson
Philip Jepson on Parliament Street, a tree-lined street in York city center. Saphora Smith / NBC News

Jepson, 57, said it was not the first time he had considered his own prejudices. Nevertheless, Floyd’s death and the subsequent anti-racism protests in the U.K. had spurred greater reflection.

“I don’t think it’s very easy not to be racist,” Jepson said. “It’s something you have to be conscious of and work against on a personal level.”

An ancient past

The city of York is nearly 2,000 years old and traces its roots to the Roman era, before it was settled by Anglo-Saxons, conquered by Vikings and later overrun by the armies of William the Conqueror. Historians and archaeologists say there is evidence of people of color living here in Roman times.

In his book “Black and British: A Forgotten History,” the historian David Olusoga cites isotopic analysis that found that around one in 10 of the 200 or so human remains found in Roman burial sites in the city were of African descent.

But in more recent history York was not a center for mass immigration, and compared to other major industrial cities did not attract high numbers of workers from Britain’s sprawling empire, said James Walvin, emeritus professor of history at the University of York.

The 2011 census found that, of the city’s nearly 200,000 residents, 94 percent identified as white. In 2016, Gary Craig, a social justice researcher and visiting professor at Newcastle University, estimated that ethnic minorities accounted for around 12 percent of York’s population. Yet, he said, people see the city as white Anglo-Saxon protestant.

Image: Clifford's Tower
Clifford's Tower, the largest remaining part of York Castle, once the center of government for the north of England, according to English Heritage. Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty file

In conversations with passersby, some acknowledged that York might have more to learn about racism than more ethnically diverse centers. And many were surprised that the number of hate crimes related to racism recorded by North Yorkshire Police has been on the rise.

From 2014 to last year, the number of race-related hate crimes reported by the police force, which is responsible for York and the surrounding area, grew by 111 percent.

Racially motivated hate crime recorded by police in England and Wales grew by roughly the same amount over a similar period.

“It’s not properly acknowledged,” Hillary Bryan, a retired journalist, said of racism across the country. She took the example of her 20-year-old son, Jamie, who had recently asked her if racism was as big a problem in the U.K. as it is in the United States.

“I said, ‘Yes, it is, Jamie, really, it’s just probably less overt. But if you were a Black teenager and you were being stopped all the time for no reason, you’d soon realize that there is racism here as well.’”

A survey last month by British pollster YouGov found that about 5 in 10 U.K. adults feel Britain is very or fairly racist. By contrast, a separate survey by the same organization found that approximately 8 in 10 Black and minority ethnic adults felt racism still exists a great deal or somewhat in the U.K. today.

Black British activists have found themselves explaining, on the streets and in TV studios, that racism is not solely an American issue, countering a reflex among many white Britons to point to the United States when discussing racism.

Data from the coronavirus pandemic has shown that death rates have been significantly higher for Black people and ethnic minorities than for white people in Britain. A government study published last month found that historic racism and social inequality may be contributing factors.

‘A bit disrespectful’

Not everyone in York sees racism as a problem, and some feel Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have gone too far by scratching at old wounds when the U.K. has made progress in recent decades.

“I don’t think our country holds anybody back,” said Paul West, who was preparing to dig test holes for anti-terror barriers on a central York street.

West, 33, pointed to the former archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who is Black and retired last month, as well as other ethnic minority leaders in the country as evidence that people of color can advance.

He supported the right of protesters to take to the street, but took issue with their targeting of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose legacy of leading Britain to victory in World War II is tainted by evidence of racist and white supremacist views.

“My grandfather fought in the war. I feel it’s spitting in our face a little bit on the history; when your forefathers fought in that war, it’s a bit disrespectful,” he said.

“It went away from what was relevant and made it irrelevant in my view.”

Image: Paul West
Paul West pointed to the former archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who is Black and retired last month, among others as evidence that people of color can advance in the U.K. Saphora Smith / NBC News

Many in this city, however, say that how history is portrayed is connected to the societal problems of today.

Olivia Wyatt, an undergraduate history student at the University of York, is working with northern schools to teach Black British history, inspired in part by her own experience of learning about the slave trade at school, where she said slavery was framed as largely American and only loosely connected to Britain.

Otherwise Black Britons did not feature in the pages of her school history books, something she said can make people see Black British history as marginal and removed from their own lives.

“The danger of that is that they start to see Black and Asian or Black and brown people as not British,” Wyatt, 21, who is of African-Caribbean and Indian heritage, said by phone from her hometown, Leeds.

Young people in York appeared to be more comfortable with the nuances of the debate over racism in the U.K. All of the half a dozen or more teenagers and millennials who spoke to NBC News said they felt systemic racism was a problem in the U.K. and had actively tried to better educate themselves by reading or watching videos online.

Many pointed to social media as an important source of information that has exposed them to a global conversation on race, whether through celebrity endorsement of BLM, soccer players taking a knee on the field or people in their networks sharing information.

The global conversation is promoting concrete local activism as well.

Njie said she had in the past raised the issue of racism with the city council and had discussed an effort to hear the stories of those who had experienced racism in the city in order to implement change. But Njie said the council had dragged its feet and eventually nothing came of it.

But City Councillor Darryl Smalley said that the council was acting and that in response to Floyd’s death and the recent protests, it had set up an action group to come up with policies to tackle hate crime and racism in the city.

Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests also spurred Njie to set up Speak Up Diversity, a grassroots group that aims to tackle systematic and institutional racism in York, by focusing, among other things, on education, awareness and the reporting of racist incidents in the workplace.

“It’s an historic opportunity,” she said. “White people are actually coming and saying what can I do?”