"Mr. Obama, do black lives really matter?" Marshall wants to know, noting that 52 percent of black men are out of work in the city and 39 percent of children live in poverty. "We need to hear him say this."
Obama has long been exceedingly cautious in addressing the country's racial divisions. But this summer, uninhibited after winning a second term, he's shed his typical reticence. There was a June interview where he asserted that "the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives," casts "a long shadow" that we're still plagued by. Then came a stirring eulogy for one of the victims of the racially motivated shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Now, many locals hope, he'll use his visit to New Orleans to validate the charges of racism surrounding the tragedy.
But not everyone agrees that race played such an integral role in the disaster. Kristin Gisleson Palmer, a former New Orleans city councilmember and former director of the nonprofit Rebuilding New Orleans Together, says while communities like the Lower Ninth have been the victims of racism in the past, "you can't make a blanket statement that it's all about race." Policies like the much-maligned Road Home program—which allocated money for rebuilding based on a house's value pre-Katrina, which favored wealthier residents' homes—was biased against poor people, she says. But the idea that the Bush administration's slow response to bring aid was rooted in racism is "bullshit."
"The response was total ineptitude, and I think it was because governments are absolutely ill-equipped to deal with something of this magnitude and this size," Palmer says. "Full stop."
Kevin Davis, who was president of St. Tammany Parish, a mostly white community outside of New Orleans, when Katrina hit, and who is now Louisiana's director of homeland security and emergency preparedness, agrees that the government wasn't prepared for a disaster like Katrina. But of the charges of racism, he says, "I never saw that."
"I had several thousand people who lived in St. Tammany Parish, of all backgrounds, and I found all of our citizens pulled together and continued the process of rebuilding their lives," Davis says. "They all pulled together, neighbor helping neighbor."
Even so, the wounds of racism—perceived or otherwise—haven't healed. Vanessa Gueringer, the vice president of New Orleans nonprofit A Community Voice, and chair of the group's Lower Ninth Ward chapter, says the community needs Obama to acknowledge that.
"He needs to be able to recognize, as a black man, as a black man in America, our pain," she says. "We know ten years ago, race, our race, played a major factor in being rescued, being called thieves, being called refugees.
"So it is important that he talk about race. Because we are not where we are supposed to be."