The Situation of Burritos
Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 11, 2009
Majorie Florestal recently posted her intriguing article, “Is a Burrito a Sandwich? Exploring Race, Class and Culture in Contracts” (14 Michigan Journal of Race and Law (2008)) on SSRN.
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A superior court in Worcester, Massachusetts, recently determined that a burrito is not a sandwich. Surprisingly, the decision sparked a firestorm of media attention. Worcester, Massachusetts, is hardly the pinnacle of the culinary arts – so why all the interest in the musings of one lone judge on the nature of burritos and sandwiches? Closer inspection revealed the allure of this otherwise peculiar case: Potentially thousands of dollars turned on the interpretation of a single word in a single clause of a commercial contract. Judge Locke based his decision on ‘common sense’ and a single definition of sandwich – ‘two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a thin layer (as of meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them.’ The only barrier to the burrito’s entry into the sacred realm of sandwiches is an additional piece of bread? What about the one-slice, open-face sandwich? Or the club sandwich, typically served as a double-decker with three pieces of bread? What about wraps? The court’s definition lacked subtlety, complexity or nuance; it was rigid, not allowing for the possibility of change and evolution. It was a decision couched in the ‘primitive formalism’ Judge Cardozo derided nearly ninety years ago when he said ‘[t]he law has outgrown its primitive stage of formalism when the precise word was a sovereign talisman, and every slip was fatal. It takes a broader view today.’ Does it? Despite the title of this piece, my goal is not to determine with any legal, scientific or culinary specificity whether a burrito is a sandwich. Rather, I explore what lies beneath the ‘primitive formalism’ or somewhat smug determination of the court that common sense answers the question for us. I suggest Judge Locke’s gut-level understanding that burritos are not sandwiches actually masks an unconscious bias. I explore this bias by examining the determination of this case and the impact of race, class and culture on contract principles.
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To download the article for free, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Alcohol, Hotdogs, Sexism, and Racism,” “Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” and “The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions.”