Editor's Choice July/August 2010

The Racket

How the numbers game shaped Harlem
More
Alex Williamson

This deeply and creatively researched book by a team of Australian historians probes the Harlem “numbers game” in the 1920s and ’30s. Probably well over half the residents of one of America’s largest African American communities regularly bet a nickel or a dime on the numbers, derived at first from daily banking-settlement figures and later from the pari-mutuel payouts on horse races (these numbers were random and hence un-fixable). This criminal enterprise, with its dense network of “bankers” and numbers runners, was Harlem’s largest employer and grossed tens of millions of dollars a year. The numbers racket was also almost certainly America’s largest black-owned business—until Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, and company horned in on the action, siphoning the profits out of Harlem. By the mid-1930s the numbers was a ubiquitous feature of both black and white urban life and a prime source of income for the mob; it would remain so until New York state established Off Track Betting in the 1970s.

Playing the Numbers is part of the authors’ vast project on Harlem’s daily life. It draws on an array of sources—from the back issues of Harlem’s newspapers, to probation reports and the case files of the New York City district attorney, to the literature and memoirs of the Harlem Renaissance—to illuminate the scope of the numbers game and the sometimes harmless, sometimes farcical, often sociable, but ultimately insidious ways it permeated nearly every aspect of Harlemites’ daily lives and even their dream lives. The result: an intricate sociology of organized crime.

Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Social Security: The Greatest Government Policy of All Time?

Social Security is the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history. So why do some people hate it?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In