After a month of viewing black male images such as "Mister" in the movie "The Color Purple" and Timothy on the television documentary by Bill Moyers, I welcomed a new Rand Corp. study that paints a different picture of black men -- one that is based on statistics and more upbeat.

Entitled "Closing the Gap: Forty Years of Economic Progress for Blacks," the report conjures up images of black men who have been working hard to survive and have made impressive gains since 1940.

The "typical" black man, who in 1940 earned about $4,500, was making almost $19,000 by 1980. In 1984 dollars, his earnings had increased 52 percent faster than whites' salaries, the report said.

"The last 40 years has seen the emergence of a black middle class three times its proportion of the black population in 1940," it noted, "while the odds of a black man becoming wealthy have increased tenfold."

Economist James P. Smith of the Rand Corp., and Finis R. Welch of Unicon Research Corp., cite those findings from analyses of census data that they say show not only a significant narrowing of the wage gap but also a large overall reduction in the number of the black poor.

"Whether we distinguish among low- or middle-income blacks, between old and the young, or the more or less educated, the incomes of black men have risen relative to comparable whites," the researchers said.

In 1940, according to the report, three-quarters of black men were destitute. One in five had incomes equal to middle class whites, and upper-income levels were almost exclusively the preserve of whites.

"Forty years ago the typical black male entering the work force had finished the sixth grade -- four grades less than those white workers with whom he had to compete," the report said.

"Today the average new black worker is a high school graduate and trails his white competitor by less than a year of education."

The report notes that black college graduates, once employed almost exclusively in government jobs, are moving "in droves" to the private sector "where the real prizes in our economic race are won . . . . "

Salary increases and promotions for blacks probably will be at least as rapid as for their white competitors, the study said, noting that black men actually have improved their status relative to whites as their careers evolve.

A new black economic leadership, "fully a fifth of all black men," is being created, the report said.

"For the first time, many blacks now have the financial ability to secure the American dream for their children."

Whether all of this will make any difference in the current instability of many black families is not known, but a relatively new trend spells serious trouble if not quickly reversed.

Before 1960, the report said, the fortunes of the black family paralleled those of the black working man, but in the next two decades the forward movement of the family stopped. In 1980, for example, 30 percent of black families were poor, the same as 10 years before.

Among young blacks there has been a sustained rise in unemployment rates relative to young whites, the report noted. Unemployment rates of blacks 16 to 25 years old were 1.45 times that of whites in 1950. By 1980 the black youth unemployment rate was 22 percent, more than double the rate for young white men.

Because an increasing number of young blacks were not in the labor force in 1970 and did not share in the gains, the overall economic progress of blacks during the decade was eroded.

"When necessary, put patches in the safety net and remove its snares," the report concludes. "But rest assured until we deal with the problem in our nation's black schools and until we restore the economic growth rates of the 1960s, further long-term reductions in black poverty will not materialize."

The report does not paint a perfect picture. Far from it. But by highlighting strengths as well as weaknesses, the report contributes to the progress documented, and from its generalizations about black men a picture emerges that is more than the usual snapshot.