Although it is virtually encyclopedic in its examination of U.S. race relations and racial politics from the Civil War to the present, Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom's monumental "America in Black and White" is really aimed at tearing down two major myths of the current debate on race.
One, held by the more radical element of the civil rights community, says nothing has really changed in America since the days of Jim Crow. The other, espoused by more moderate factions, says, yes, there has been progress, but it is due only to such government programs as affirmative action.
The Thernstroms shatter the first assertion in their early chapters by chronicling the abuses of Jim Crow, the least of which would be unimaginable in today's society.
To the latter thesis, the Thernstroms pithily respond: "The notion of black gains as a white handout is absolutely wrong."
But they do more than just comment that such an assertion is insulting to American blacks; they also point out that the facts say otherwise.
With reams of polling data to measure attitudes and demographics on everything from incomes to living conditions, the husband-and-wife team proves that black Americans have made remarkable progress on every front this century.
In 1940, for instance, 87 percent of American blacks had incomes below the poverty line; today, the figure is 26 percent. But that number was down to 30 percent by 1970, which means that 93 percent of the progress in this area on average happened before racial preferences began under affirmative action.
To put things in perspective, the chart also shows that 49 percent of whites lived in poverty in 1940; the figure fell to 8 percent in 1970 but rose to 9% today.
Though the Thernstroms believe the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts of 1965 were extremely important, the change in white racial attitudes had already happened to a large extent.
While history books tend to focus on what presidents and the Supreme Court do, the Thernstroms show that white attitudes toward blacks had already become more positive before Brown vs. Board of Education and the civil rights laws.
Politicians did not lead the change, the couple assert - they followed it. And like the gain in incomes, most of the progress in white attitudes happened before the government became heavily involved.
How this came about is another misreported story, the Thernstroms write. While the first great migration of blacks from the rural South to Northern cities happened during the World War I years and has been studied extensively, it was the second great migration during World War II that not only was much larger but also was more important.
In both cases, the migrations happened not so much because blacks were fleeing Southern racism but rather because labor shortages in the North opened up job opportunities.
During the Second World War, the notion of white supremacy also got a bad reputation with Americans because it was uncomfortably close to the rhetoric of the Nazis they were fighting.
In the 1940s and 1950s, white American racial attitudes went through a tremendous sea change, and black incomes and educational levels, despite the Jim Crow South, made huge advances - primarily because of what blacks were doing for themselves.
The civil rights legislation, the Thernstroms note, only codified what had already been happening and broke down the last vestiges of barriers that had been crumbling of their own weight.
The Thernstroms do not believe America has become an egalitarian utopia or racism has disappeared. They just don't think it is particularly relevant.
The two biggest factors depressing black incomes today, they write, are the collapsing family structure and rising crime. These problems, they contend, cannot be blamed on racism or poverty since they have worsened as racial bias and black poverty decreased.
Near the end of their massive study, the Thernstroms report on a disturbing trend that threatens to undo much of the progress that has been made. While huge gains were made in black students' secondary-level education between 1971 and 1988, the gap between white and black students has widened dramatically in the past decade.
The authors admit to being stumped by this trend, but they say racism is an unlikely culprit. After all, they write, urban schools on average spend more per student than suburban schools, and they have an abundance of black teachers, administrators and school board members.
"America in Black and White" is not just a history book but also a look at the current state of race relations in the tradition of Gunnar Myrdal's 1944 classic "American Dilemma."
Half of this volume, which we don't have time to discuss here, deals with current programs, incidents and debates, garnered from thousands of sources and buttressed by 75 statistical tables.
You might call this thorough and fascinating book "Everything you Wanted to Know about Race, but Were Too Intimidated to Ask."