Extensive interviews with 76 of Chicago's black business elite form the basis of this study by Collins-Lowry, a sociologist at University of Illinois, Chicago. Unfortunately, hers is a tinder-dry academic style, imparting very few of these executives' personal experiences or insights. Thesis prevails, without any illustrative anecdote or broad speculative inquiry not directly serving it. Instead, statistics are cited twice, in absolute as well as percentage terms; conclusions are repeated often; and recurrent, defensive justification interferes with the power of her argument. It's too bad, because there are some salient points beneath the tedium. Collins-Lowry gives persuasive examples of how employment gains made by blacks through the '80s were rather more marginalized than we like to think--as one executive characterized it, he was ""the head black in charge of black[s],"" while others saw gains begin to slip as racial pressures subsided. The government's role was crucial, not only in terms of the numbers of black managers it hired, but also through its contracting power, without which too many white firms might have stayed that way. Collins-Lowry warns that abandoning affirmative action may lead to the kind of civil unrest that was the catalyst for the first equal opportunity legislation. Not everyone will agree with her: she sees ""government dependency as an unavoidable partner in blacks' progress"" and worries that the rise of a black middle class within a predominantly white business world may have deprived the black community of leaders, turning them instead into company men. But the much thornier issue for most readers will be getting through the book in the first place. (Dec.) FYI: Black Entrepreneurs in America: Stories of Struggle and Success is reviewed on page 62 of this issue.