THE COLOR LINE AND THE QUALITY OF LIFE IN AMERICA By Reynolds Farley and Walter Allen Russell Sage Foundation. 492 pp. $37.50

PERHAPS THE most comprehensive examination ever undertaken of black life in the United States was that of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma. Conducted in the early 1940s and published in 1944, the study painted a bleak picture of frustrated black aspirations and of the lack of progress that resulted from accumulated decades of segregation and oppression.

Since Myrdal wrote his classic work, our society has changed in profound ways -- economically, demographically, technologically and socially. Most notably, the 1960s witnessed both a redefinition of the American creed to include blacks and a major effort to improve their economic condition. What has been the cumulative effect of these various developments on black life?

In The Color Line and the Quality of Life in America Reynolds Farley and Walter Allen succeed in the ambitious task of making just such an assessment, providing us with a valuable update on black progress on the eve of the 21st century. Drawing heavily on the 1980 decennial census as well as census surveys before and after it, they cover a wide array of social demographic topics including trends in black mortality, fertility, employment, schooling, income, family life and occupational achievement. Throughout, systematic comparisons are made between blacks and whites. The authors cover a staggering amount of material and employ a deftly executed, well-sustained analysis.

The book's broad scope covers in depth the four decades from 1940 to 1980, with additional examination of the early 1980s. But in discussing population and migration trends, the analysis stretches back to the 19th century.

Books using census data often become little more than the recitation of dry statistics. Farley and Allen have done much more. In every chapter they attempt explanations of observed racial differences by first reviewing the various theories suggested by others, then putting these theories to the test with sound analysis. At times the state of scientific knowledge and available data result in a clear conclusion, at other times, they leave the question unresolved.

For instance, some scholars have attributed the higher fertility rate of blacks to cultural preferences (the minority group hypothesis that certain racial or ethnic groups simply prefer to have more children), others to differences in the characteristics of blacks (the social characteristics hypothesis that educational and employment levels affect birth rates). After detailed examination of both changing fertility trends and variations in fertility by such factors as education, region and income Farley and Allen conclude that "it is impossible to tell at this time if the higher fertility of blacks is the result of cultural values and preferences" or of their different social characteristics.

In a similar fashion, attempts to explain the continuing lower employment rate of black males have focused on market discrimination and personal characteristics. In their discussion Farley and Allen attempt to make sense of the data by constructing models derived from existing knowledge about the causes of labor force participation. After fitting these models to 1980 census data they conclude that racial differences in employment would not disappear even if black males had the same personal characteristics as white males. Market discrimination continues.

Farley and Allen consistently and thoroughly pursue this central concern of their study: the degree to which traditionally substantial disparities between blacks and whites persist even today. Their conclusions are sobering, even discouraging. They found, for instance, that substantial gains have been made in curbing the historically high mortality rates among black adults and children, but note the large gap remaining between blacks and whites. In 1982, in spite of all the gains made, black males continued to lag behind with a life expectancy 6.6 years lower than that of white males (64.9 to 71.5 years).

The most positive developments were found in black educational and occupational gains. By 1980 the same percentage of blacks were enrolled in elementary and high schools as whites, though years of education completed for the entire black population lagged behind, especially at the college level. The restriction of blacks to a few occupations began to end in the late 1960s, producing significant occupational upgrading in the 1980s and resulting in an increased number of blacks in professional and managerial jobs. But the data on black occupations today only appears as such good news against the very bad news of the past -- the extreme deprivation that blacks experienced in earlier decades. For the authors note that "in 1980 the average status of a nonwhite man's job was equivalent to that of the typical white man four decades earlier."

The authors analyze economic issues -- employment, occupation, income, wealth and earnings -- in particular depth. One major finding is that despite substantial educational gains and occupational upgrading, blacks lag significantly behind whites in income, wealth and earnings. Only one in 20 black households, compared with one in five white households, owned shares of stock or mutual funds in 1984. Median assets owned by blacks were only 9 percent of those owned by whites. The economic penalty for being black continued in the 1980s even for young college-educated black males who found themselves earning "19 percent less than whites on an annual basis and 9 percent on an hourly basis."

In only a few instances did I find myself disagreeing with the authors. One such instance involves their discussion of income gains of black women. While it is clear that black women have made substantial gains in income since 1940, the way the authors present their data suggests that in certain age groups (35-54 years) and educational levels (college graduates), black women have higher median incomes than white women. But such figures, when examined closely, prove misleading. When one takes account of the greater number of hours black women work, the higher incomes of black women evaporate. Farley and Allen themselves note this, but the point could have been more forcefully stated, and the statistics adjusted for differences in the number of hours worked.

However, the extensive data and solid analysis presented in this study easily outweigh its shortcomings. Farley and Allen have done well in their ambitious task; in a book that is capacious, well-organized and thoughtful (though likely to prove tough going for the layman), they have provided a broad analysis of black progress from 1940 to the present. It is a volume that probably will remain the standard reference work in the field, at least until scholars begin to digest findings from the census for the year 2000. Their overall conclusion, however, coming more than 20 years after the civil rights movement, is sobering: "Black Americans continue to be substantially disadvantaged relative to whites in this country."

Bart Landry, author of "The New Black Middle Class," is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and a visiting scholar at the Joint Center for Political Studies.