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John Edwards weighs in on Katrina

Former V.P. candidate discusses the role of race and poverty in America
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Many of the victims of Katrina were poor and disadvantaged.  Recently, MSNBC's Chris Matthews spoke with former Senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards, who now leads the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, about the challenges facing the Bush administration as it tries to help the victims of the storm. 

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

JOHN EDWARDS FORMER VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  The first and foremost thing is to get immediate help to those people who need it. 

I mean, there are a lot of people in desperate -- in a desperate place, and they need help, and they need help immediately.  But the second thing that I hope the president and the vice president are both thinking about is, out of this tragedy, there's a real opportunity.  And that opportunity is to rebuild a New Orleans that's a real shining example of what we can do in this country for poor people, for so many of these African-Americans that we have seen who have struggled and suffered so much. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS:  Well, let's talk about the faces of those folks that were standing there at the Convention Center for all those days last week.  What were you thinking, as a person who has been studying poverty?  They were almost all African-American.  In fact, every picture I saw was an African-American.  They were poor people, based upon how they were dressed and a lot of other factors, like why they were there. 

What was your feeling watching that, of those desperate people looking for somebody to come with some water? 

EDWARDS:  First, that everybody in New Orleans was hurt, but that the poorest, the most vulnerable were hurt the most, those people who live in poverty, because they always get hurt the most. 

And if you think about the way they live their lives, I mean, so many of them, these evacuation orders were great, but a lot of these folks have no car.  They had no way to get out of town.  And for them, you know, the little bit that they've been able to accumulate in their life was really important to them.  And so, I'm sure some of them wanted to stay back and try to save and protect the little bit that they had. 

So, if you think about, Chris, where they are now, I mean, they don't have a job.  They don't have a home.  Almost certainly, they had no insurance to cover their loses.  So, they're looking-and they had no assets.  So they got nothing to fall back on.  They have no bank account that will pay for them to go somewhere else and get a new start.

So, they are literally starting from scratch.  And if you think about this, you know, if you are 45 or 50 or 60 years old and you have been barely getting by trying to support your kids, like so many of these families that live in poverty that I have been meeting with for the last six months, I mean, the reality is, ... they're worried about what they're going to do tomorrow and the next day, how they're going to feed their kids.

And they're in a very hard place, which is why we as a nation need to recognize that we're not doing something for them.  We're actually doing something for us. 

MATTHEWS:  Let's talk about race in America.  You are a white guy from North Carolina.  You grew up in, black and white surroundings, like a lot of people in America.  You know about racial issues.  Do you believe it's all poverty or there's still a lot of prejudices about hiring, about neighborhoods, about just getting along with each other? 

EDWARDS:  No, it's not all poverty. 

I mean, poverty-poverty plays an important role in it ... we see it in New Orleans.  We have seen it -- I have seen it in my own -- you know, I have probably, in 25 states now, met with people who are living in poverty.  And I see a lot of African-American faces in these meetings, these private meetings I have been having with people who live in poverty. 

So, clearly, that's an important piece of it, which is why we need to do some work on the income disparity, asset building.  There's a whole group of things we need to do to help with that problem.  But that won't eliminate it, because anybody who is paying attention knows that discrimination still goes on in this country.  It goes on every single day.  A lot of it is subtle.  A lot of it is not as open and blatant as it was when I was growing up in the South, but it is still there and it's still very real.  And it impacts African-Americans and their chances for opportunity every day. 

Watch each weeknight at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.