Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 9780226690445 Published April 2020
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Running the Numbers

Race, Police, and the History of Urban Gambling

Matthew Vaz

Running the Numbers

Matthew Vaz

208 pages | 15 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 9780226690445 Published April 2020
E-book $10.00 to $35.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226690582 Published April 2020

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.


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

Review Quotes
N.D.B. Connolly, author of A World More Concrete
“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!”
Christopher Lowen Agee, author of The Streets of San Francisco
“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.”
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