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Running the Numbers

Race, Police, and the History of Urban Gambling

Every day in the United States, people test their luck in numerous lotteries, from state-run games to massive programs like Powerball and Mega Millions. Yet few are aware that the origins of today’s lotteries can be found in an African American gambling economy that flourished in urban communities in the mid-twentieth century. In Running the Numbers, Matthew Vaz reveals how the politics of gambling became enmeshed in disputes over racial justice and police legitimacy.

As Vaz highlights, early urban gamblers favored low-stakes games built around combinations of winning numbers. When these games became one of the largest economic engines in nonwhite areas like Harlem and Chicago’s south side, police took notice of the illegal business—and took advantage of new opportunities to benefit from graft and other corrupt practices. Eventually, governments found an unusual solution to the problems of illicit gambling and abusive police tactics: coopting the market through legal state-run lotteries, which could offer larger jackpots than any underground game. By tracing this process and the tensions and conflicts that propelled it, Vaz brilliantly calls attention to the fact that, much like education and housing in twentieth-century America, the gambling economy has also been a form of disputed terrain upon which racial power has been expressed, resisted, and reworked.

208 pages | 15 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Historical Studies of Urban America

Black Studies


History: Urban History

Political Science: Race and Politics

Sociology: Sociology of Arts--Leisure, Sports


"Vaz brings fresh perspectives to scholarly discussions on race and policing, mass incarceration, and African American gambling economies. An original and rigorously evidenced work, Running the Numbers advances scholarly interpretations on New York City’s and Chicago’s illegal gambling rackets during the mid-twentieth century. . . . Running the Numbers is an engaging and innovate work. It presents nuanced perspectives on the Jim Crow North, policing and carceral confinement, and municipal politics. Moreover, Vaz’s work is a welcome addition to the growing list of studies about urban Black life and labor."

American Historical Review

"Running the Numbers is an important addition to a growing historiography on race and the transition of underground economies. Vaz writes clearly, succinctly, and unflinchingly. His study reinforces previous work on the subject but also offers fresh analysis of the forces that shaped the transformation of illegal gambling into state lotteries."

Journal of American History

"Running the Numbers ensures that urban gambling reclaims its rightful place in American history and remind us of the racist foundations of many of our taken for granted modern day luxuries, including the ability to purchase a lottery ticket."

Law and Society Review

“One of the most timely history books I’ve ever read. In Running the Numbers, Vaz explains how games of chance, once considered a personal vice, became an acceptable source of jobs, school funding, and broad public virtue. Smartly argued and rigorously evidenced, the book not only places the informal gambling economy of black neighborhoods at the center urban life, but it also offers a vivid analogue—really a prologue—for our current debates over marijuana legalization and the ongoing racism of drug enforcement. Required reading!”

N.D.B. Connolly, author of A World More Concrete

“With a gripping narrative, Running the Numbers uncovers the central role gambling played in the political and economic life of twentieth-century black urban America. Control over gambling became a flashpoint between black Americans and the government, and Vaz’s story offers novel, unexpected insights into how the emerging carceral state disempowered and drained black communities.”

Christopher Lowen Agee, author of The Streets of San Francisco

"Gambling is said to be the oldest of vices, and this book describes how it was manifested in urban America over the last century."

Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

"This volume will intrigue readers interested in the rise of mass incarceration and racially biased policing. It demonstrates that the same Cold War liberals who shepherded advances in civil rights and civil liberties also constructed a newly potent criminal justice system to police individuals seen as threatening to their vision. Though African Americans fought such repression, as Vaz shows, the state nonetheless destroyed livelihoods, filled the jails, and reaffirmed a racial caste system."

Journal of African American History

Table of Contents


1 Politics and the Old Policy Wheel
2 “Are You Going to Let a Negro Name the Next Mayor of Chicago?”: Investigations and Elections
3 This Community Is Being Criminalized
4 Half of the Rest of Their Lives in Jail
5 We Intend to Run It

Conclusion: Lottery as an American Way of Life


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