Vice President Kamala Harris has a habit. Whenever she’s been put on the spot—unfairly or otherwise—and boxed into a corner, she laughs. Maybe “chuckles” is the better word. This habit is mostly harmless, one that many of us are have: Laughing when we’re nervous, grinning in the middle of an aggravating argument. But most of us are not politicians, and this week, the habit highlighted a political weakness within the Biden-Harris administration and emphasized the ways in which Harris’s mannerisms become fodder for racist and sexist attacks.
On Tuesday, NBC aired an interview between journalist Lester Holt and Harris during Harris’s first foreign trip as Vice President. She was in Guatemala for the first leg of the trip and Mexico City for the next, but her itinerary didn’t include a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, where an influx of migrants seeking asylum has produced blood in the water for anti-immigrant Republicans and blinders for Democrats uninterested in tackling the controversial crisis.
Holt pressed Harris as to why a trip to the border wasn’t on the agenda.
“Do you have any plans to visit the border?”
“At some point, you know, we are going to the border,” Harris said. “We’ve been to the border. So this whole — this whole — this whole thing about the border. We’ve been to the border. We’ve been to the border.”
“You haven’t been to the border,” Lester countered.
“And I haven’t been to Europe!” Harris laughed. “I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”
Holt added that Harris has been criticized about her apparent reluctance to visit the border, to which Harris replied, “Listen, I care about what’s happening at the border. I’m in Guatemala because my focus is dealing with the root causes of migration. There may be some who think that that is not important, but it is my firm belief that if we care about what’s happening at the border, we better care about the root causes and address them. So that’s what I’m doing.”
She’s right, of course, that addressing the root causes of migration matters, and the Biden administration plans to inject billions of dollars into the region to help bolster the economies of these hot spots. Whether the United States is ready to grapple with the ways in which its own toxic influence in Latin America plays into it is another question entirely, and Harris certainly didn’t delve into that on Monday following a press conference with Guatemala’s president: “I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come.”
The following day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki attempted to clarify Harris’s remarks, explaining that Harris was simply emphasizing the danger of the journey and that the United States currently does not have a robust asylum processing system that it would need to accommodate incoming migrants. But the damage was done; the quote came across as cold, as did the soundbite, angering immigration-friendly lawmakers and coming across as unrealistic and out of touch to immigration activists, migration experts, and asylum seekers.
The damage was done following Harris’s chuckle with Holt too. While eager Democrats and Harris loyalists were quick to condemn Holt for asking the question in the first place, the right pounced on the awkward moment more efficiently: the Twitter peanut gallery condemned Harris’s response as snide; Republican politicians like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that “The Vice President thinks the border crisis is a hilarious joke;” right-wing publications like The Daily Mail accused Harris of “snapping;” The View’s token conservative Meghan McCain compared it to a scene from Veep; right-wing satire site Babylon Bee published an article titled, “Border Crisis Solved: Immigrants Flee In Terror After Hearing Kamala Harris Cackle.”
And leave it to Fox News to really go there: On The Five Tuesday, conservative commenter Katie Pavlich said, “This is what happens when you choose your vice president based on gender and skin color rather than actual talent and expertise.” (Geraldo Rivera was the lone panelist who bothered coming to Harris’s defense).
Multiple things can be true at once: Harris’s awkward laugh often comes across as condescending and glib; it also gives ghouls on the right an opening to use her laugh as an opening for sexist jibes and gives the right more reason to hold a Black woman in power to a standard they won’t bother holding their own allies and colleagues too. Also true: Harris’s trip has not helped the Biden administration an iota, and that’s not because of the right or because Lester Holt dared ask whether the person President Biden assigned to tackle immigration over two months ago has bothered visiting ground zero of the immigration debate. It’s because, thus far, the Biden administration hasn’t had too much to brag about on the immigration front: reluctantly raising the refugee admittance rate to the United States, reviving juvenile migrant detention centers, and pushing an immigration reform bill that is bound to crash and burn on the Senate floor—leaving DACA recipients to again see stability as a pipe dream in their continued state of limbo—has made the last few months disappointing for the left and promising for the right. And while it is impossible to get much done within just a few months in Washington without an executive order, the Biden administration hasn’t had the most inspiring rhetoric for a more immigration-friendly future either; not being Trump isn’t enough.
Much has been said about whether Harris has been set up to fail, whether Biden threw her under the bus, whether Harris will even stand a chance in another general election if she’s attached to the immigration clusterfuck. It’s not an unfair assessment: It’s easy to conclude that Harris is just another smart black woman set up to get destroyed. But at the end of the day, Harris signed up for this job. She agreed to be Biden’s right-hand man, to help push his agenda, and to tackle some of the biggest crises of the age. The critiques of Harris may not always be fair, but that doesn’t absolve her of her agency, her (at times unsavory) politics, or her apparent inability to keep the ill-timed laughs to a minimum.