Some would say that German businessman Thomas Neger has an unfortunate last name – translated, it has the same meaning as the historical term "negro" and some consider it the German equivalent of the "n-word." Even his critics acknowledge that changing names is tough. What has caused much more anger and outrage is Neger's company logo, which advertises his roofer company. Many say that the logo is more than just unfortunate. They call it racist.
The logo is becoming increasingly divisive in the western German city of Mainz where Neger's company is based. Neger himself is not only a businessman, but also a local representative for Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party and the issue of the logo has now become politicized. Felix Schmitt, a spokesperson for the Green Party, reported the logo to Facebook. The social network then deleted the symbol from Thomas Neger's company profile because of its "offensive content."
On his Twitter account, Schmitt said that he has since received threats for reporting the logo to Facebook. In an e-mail to The Washington Post, Schmitt defended Neger. "I'm sure Neger is shocked, as well," Schmitt wrote.
When asked about the controversy, Neger told The Post that he blamed his critics for the recent escalation and that he had no intention to change the image. "The goal of my grandfather was to create a strong and proud company logo and according to my own experience, black people in particular have reacted positively to it in the past," he said.
Black students who raised criticism over the company logo now say that they are also being harassed online and fear for their safety after they received death threats. The female students had founded a Facebook group called "Out with the logo -- For a world without racism," where they posted photos of themselves holding posters with anti-racism messages.
"You can't do anything about a name, but you can change a logo," one of the posters read.
Another student criticized the defensive argument of Neger's company that the logo had always been used and remains a tradition. "Racism shouldn't be a tradition," the student wrote in German.
In an e-mail to The Washington Post, student activists Makda Isak and Feven Keleta explained on Friday that they felt left out in the debate because of their foreign origins. "Many Germans have never really thought about everyday racism. In schools, racism is mainly portrayed as physical violence or right-wing extremism -- but many black people experience racism through verbal remarks, or logos such as the one of Thomas Neger," they wrote.
The student activists' Facebook page had more than 3,000 likes by Friday. This, however, is only half the number of likes a page called "Ein Herz für Neger" ("A heart for Neger") has gotten. It could also be translated as "A heart for N------" and is supposed to defend the company. The page's Facebook name uses the slogan of a popular German NGO called "A heart for children" which supports families in need.
Speaking to the newspaper Die Welt, ethnology professor Matthias Krings argued that the support for Neger's fan page does not necessarily indicate racism. Neger's grandfather, who introduced the logo 70 years ago, was a local prominent figure known for his humor. Some supporters may simply want to show support for the family and not the logo.
Supporters of Neger call the student initiative a "campaign of hatred" and argue that the term "racism is being abused." After anonymous activists distributed leaflets with the slogan "Giving racism a name" -- an obvious reference to Thomas Neger -- the businessman pressed charges against the unknown distributors.
Support for the anti-racism group has come from the student association of the department of ethnology and African Studies at the University of Mainz. "Online commentators repeatedly asked the students to go back where they came from or to go back to Africa. This clearly shows the prevalence of racism in out society," the association wrote in a statement and added: "As long as individuals are attacked for their criticism of racist logos, we will not declare the debate as over."
This post has been updated.