The racist encounter with a taxi driver that inspired a movement

Campaign group Inclusive Equal Rights UK has developed a plan to make York the first ‘anti-racist’ city in the north of England - but has already faced backlash, Maanya Sachdeva writes

Monday 17 July 2023 16:07 BST
Chair of grassroots campaign group IERUK Haddy Njie
Chair of grassroots campaign group IERUK Haddy Njie (Lorne Campbell / Guzelian)

Shortly after Haddy Njie moved from London to York in 2015, she experienced a “horrific” racist incident.

Headed to Greater Manchester for a work meeting, Ms Njie ordered a taxi to the station. When she asked the driver to take a shorter route she knew, he “hurled racist, aggressive slurs including the N-word” at her because “I guess he didn’t like me telling him what to do”.

The driver kept telling Ms Njie to “get out of my taxi, you Black n*****”, the 39-year-old toldThe Independent, before stopping the car at a red light, forcing her to disembark – including removing her suitcase from the vehicle – and driving off.

“My entire life turned upside down and I thought, ‘I need some answers here’,” she said. “So I contacted [local authorities], the MP, councillors... and the more questions I was asking and the more people I spoke to, it became clear that not much has been done [to manage racism], and people are suffering in silence.”

“I was being told there are systems and tools and forums in place, but I couldn’t really see the actions, initiatives, or the evidence to show they were doing something about it.”

So Ms Njie decided to take matters into her own hands. Eight years later, the chair of grassroots campaign group Inclusive Equal Rights UK (IERUK) has won council approval for a five-year action plan that – if successfully implemented – would make York the first ‘anti-racist and inclusive’ city in the north of England.

But after the plan - which can be read here - was announced, the campaign group received a “barrage of racist abuse and hate on social media,” she says.

“We will not let you re-write our history for the benefit of Africans who are relative newcomers,” were among the offensive comments made online.

Another post about the group’s data-led initiative read: “Presumably this is code for ethnically cleansing York of white people.”

Addressing the backlash, Mr Njie clarified: “We are not saying that all of the people of York are racist or that York is a racist city, Our evidence-based research has demonstrated that the city has some serious issues of casual and systemic racism.”

York ‘has serious issues’ of systemic racism, Ms Njie said
York ‘has serious issues’ of systemic racism, Ms Njie said (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

She said the action plan to make access to infrastructure and opportunities in York more equitable is inspired by similar programs in cities such as Oxford, Brighton, and Derby that all declared themselves to be anti-racist cities.

As of the 2021 census, York had a population of 202,400 with 14% from ethnic minorities. Despite this, every member of City of York Executive Council is white and the group’s research uncovered other stark inequalities.

“Some of the most disturbing data we received was around policing, including figures that showed that Black people are 90 times more likely to be stopped and searched,” Ms Njie said. “Asian people are 18 times more likely to be searched than their white counterparts.”

Police data shows instances of recorded racial hate crimes in York and North Yorkshire increased by 239 per cent, from 152 incidents in 2012 to 515 in 2020.

In response, IERUK has formulated 12 action points for policing reform as part of their 52-page report, which includes reviewing Stop and Search policies, monitoring outcomes of Stop and Search incidents, and establishing mandatory cultural, sensitivity and unconscious bias training, and organising events geared towards improving community relations. The Independent has contacted the North Yorkshire police force for comment on these proposals.

But it is not just a matter of improving the community’s relationships with one institution. IERUK highlighted that 68 per cent of Muslims live in areas with the highest rates of unemployment, Black women are four times more likely to die from childbirth than White women, and that Roma, Gypsy and Traveller people face high levels of racial assault and poor health.

‘I think we have a real opportunity – history in the making – to change and review everything [in York] so it becomes more equal, to benefit everyone,’ Ms Njie says
‘I think we have a real opportunity – history in the making – to change and review everything [in York] so it becomes more equal, to benefit everyone,’ Ms Njie says (Lorne Campbell / Guzelian)

So the group has looked at other sectors such as healthcare, housing, and social welfare as part of their efforts to develop the action plan, in partnership with the Institute for Social Justice at York St John University.

IERUK’s plan was approved at a cross-party council meeting on 13 July where the next steps, including agreeing on a detailed plan of delivery and instructing officers to carry out the steps identified, were outlined.

In a statement, City of York councillor Katie Lomas said: “We very much value the work done by IERUK, and the independence that they bring to this work.

“We recognise the challenges for organisations across the city of ensuring a genuinely anti-racist environment, and we are happy to restate our commitment to becoming the North’s first Anti-Racist city,” she continued. “We would encourage people and businesses across the city to consider how they can support that ambition.”

There’s always the risk that organisations, institutions, and people may not be willing to commit their time and resources to implement IERUK’s ideas, Ms Njie said as she reflected on the challenges ahead for IERUK. But she hopes the campaign will drive change, and not be forgotten.

“I think we have a real opportunity – history in the making – to change and review everything [in York] so it becomes more equal, to benefit everyone.”

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