President Obama speaks at Xavier University on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans on August 29, 2010. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Ten years ago, then-Sen. Barack Obama visited families failed by the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, returned to Washington, and declared that race had nothing much to do with it.

"There has been a lot of attention in the media about the fact that those who were left behind in New Orleans were disproportionately poor and disproportionately African-American," Obama said on the Senate floor. "I have said publicly that I do not subscribe to the notion that the painfully slow response of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was somehow racially based. I do not agree with that. I think the ineptitude was colorblind."

Fast-forward 10 years, and the man who campaigned as a post-racial candidate is heading to New Orleans as a president who has found his voice on race. And many of those who have applauded his transformation say it's time for him to reverse course on Katrina.

In the weeks after the storm, blacks and whites viewed the role of race in starkly different ways. Sixty percent of black residents believed the federal government's slow response in New Orleans was because many of the victims were black, according to a CNN poll from September 2005, while just 12 percent of whites had a similar view. With a speech finally recognizing the role of racism in the tragedy, some people say, Obama could help right the wrongs of his predecessor.

"I would love for him to talk about race, because I think for the people there, that would be important to hear and important to have validated," says Tracey Ross, associate director of the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress. "To go from having George Bush in office ... to now having an African-American president who can say, 'This was wrong.'"

Though Ross says she doesn't know whether Bush is racist, she believes race definitely played a role in the slow response. On Thursday, when Obama is slated to commemorate the anniversary at a multiservice center in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, she'd like him to acknowledge the role race played so he can explicitly illustrate—as he did in a recent speech when he called for a recognition of the "subtle racism" that leads those making hiring decisions to "call back Johnny, and not Jamal, for a job interview"—that racism isn't always obvious.

Reflecting on Katrina also offers a chance for the president to reiterate his recent message that American society isn't yet cured of the scourge of racism, says Dennis Parker, the director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program.

"As a society, we need reminders, but I think particularly it's important for him to bring that to people's attention," Parker said. "This is an opportunity to say, 'This is a problem that we still have not solved. And this is the proof of it.'"

Ten years after the storm, New Orleans' famed French Quarter is just as bustling with tourists as before. Houses have been rebuilt, neighborhoods restored. But the hardest hit areas—among them, those with the highest concentration of black residents—lag behind the rest of the city's recovery. And there's a racial divide in how New Orleans residents view the recovery: While nearly 80 percent of white residents say Louisiana has recovered, 59 percent of black residents say it hasn't, according to a Louisiana State University survey published Monday.

In 2007, Obama himself told a mostly black audience that it seemed as if the federal government didn't care about the people of New Orleans as much as victims of other tragedies. When the video of his remarks surfaced, in 2012, it was seen in conservative circles as "playing the race card." But even in his 2007 remarks, he reiterated his view that the government was "colorblind in its incompetence."

This time around, Alfred Marshall, an organizer with Stand With Dignity, a branch of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, wants Obama to acknowledge the latter view. Marshall grew up in the B.W. Cooper public housing projects, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans, and was living there when Katrina hit. He was trapped for four days after the storm, until he swam through the water to get to the safety of the Superdome. Amid the continued blight in the Lower Ninth Ward and elsewhere, Marshall has one question for the president.

"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."

Reflecting on Katrina also offers a chance for the president to reiterate his recent message that American society isn’t yet cured of the scourge of racism, says Dennis Parker, the director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.

“As a society, we need reminders, but I think particularly it’s important for him to bring that to people’s attention,” Parker said. “This is an opportunity to say, ‘This is a problem that we still have not solved. And this is the proof of it.’”

Ten years after the storm, New Orleans’ famed French Quarter is just as bustling with tourists as before. Houses have been rebuilt, neighborhoods restored. But the hardest hit areas—among them, those with the highest concentration of black residents—lag behind the rest of the city’s recovery. And there’s a racial divide in how New Orleans residents view the recovery: While nearly 80 percent of white residents say Louisiana has recovered, 59 percent of black residents say it hasn’t, according to a Louisiana State University survey published Monday.

In 2007, Obama himself told a mostly black audience that it seemed as if the federal government didn’t care about the people of New Orleans as much as victims of other tragedies. When the video of his remarks surfaced, in 2012, it was seen in conservative circles as “playing the race card.” But even in his 2007 remarks, he reiterated his view that the government was “colorblind in its incompetence.”

This time around, Alfred Marshall, an organizer with Stand With Dignity, a branch of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, wants Obama to acknowledge the latter view. Marshall grew up in the B.W. Cooper public housing projects, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans, and was living there when Katrina hit. He was trapped for four days after the storm, until he swam through the water to get to the safety of the Superdome. Amid the continued blight in the Lower Ninth Ward and elsewhere, Marshall has one question for the president.

“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, S.C. 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.”

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