Will President Obama Reverse Course on Race and Katrina?

Obama has said race wasn’t a factor in the government’s slow response to Katrina. He may not stand by that view in his Thursday speech in New Orleans.

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
Add to Briefcase
Rebecca Nelson
Aug. 27, 2015, 5 a.m.

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.”

Mr. Obama, do black lives really matter? We need to hear him say this. 
Alfred Marshall, community organizer in New Orleans

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.”

×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login