The 1990 census is finally tallied, and newspapers are filledwith excited headlines on the unexpectedly rapid growth of the nation's minority population. ''This is the dawning of the first universal nation,'' demographer Ben Wattenberg told reporters tracking the shift.
That's one view. Another, echoed by Mr. Wattenberg himself in describing the position of the nation's whites, is that ''there's a big difference between being a 90-percent majority [as whites were in 1980], a 70-percent or a 55-percent majority.'' Newsweek magazine, anticipating the results, asked pointedly in a major pre-census report what it would be like to live in a nation whose population no longer fit the description ''white'' at all.
Some observers think recent changes to U.S. immigration law are meant to forestall that day, projected to dawn about the middle of the next century: New provisions for ''disadvantaged'' peoples, i.e., those from European countries who lack U.S. relatives; special provisions for Irish immigration; pro- visions to bring in more ''skilled'' workers. These onlookers read ''skilled worker'' exceptions as doors for large numbers of Eastern Europeans and Soviet emigres, coming to take the top jobs from minorities.
Look closely at the way immigration law actually works, however, and it becomes difficult to fit those observations to the reality of today's American population.
First, the ex-Soviet, ex-East Bloc option only works if the economic problems now afflicting the former Iron Curtain countries spread all over Europe. There's no reason they should, since Western economies operate on a different basis. Jobs drive U.S. immigration, but demographers say Europe is facing its own worker shortages. Why move to the United States when there are plenty of opportunities close to home?
Second, economists who looked into the ''skilled worker'' immigration of past years note that most of the people who came in have been spouses and relatives of technically skilled immigrants. Generally, these spouses and family members have not brought the same skills.
Increasingly, the people who do have the skills are members of racial minorities. Blacks and Hispanics, particularly, have dramatically raised their numbers in engineering schools and in the profession.
Finally, the biggest category of ''disadvantaged'' people, the Irish, are allocated just half of the 40,000 new quotas. Massachusetts' senators and congressmen worked hard for that provision, but it's hardly likely to change the direction of the shift in America's racial makeup.
What's really happening with the big growth of black, Hispanic and Asian populations and the sharp drop in white American birth rates is that long-standing conceptions of the ''place'' racial minorities should occupy are losing force. It's all very well to say you don't want blacks to move into the suburban communities so carefully crafted to keep them out, but what if you're a developer who's seeing ever fewer qualified white customers? Could you keep turning away blacks with the disposable cash to support your enterprise then, watching them go happily to your competitors?
That's already happening in many places. Nicholas Lemann's new book, ''The Promised Land,'' reminds everyone that the black middle class move to the suburbs parallels the moves by successful members of every other ethnic group out of America's inner cities; it is not in any way unusual. That puts into perspective the rapid growth of black, mostly middle-class populations in the Washington suburbs and around every other big city despite the ''hyper-segregation'' decried by University of Chicago researchers a couple of years ago.
On the job front, a slumping economy has everyone worried, but such slumps always end. Meantime, that generation of workers expected to retire in the mid-Nineties has already started to step down. Analyses by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have proved that cultural distinctions and discrimination become less relevant when the labor market gets tight, and the National Urban League's ''State of Black America'' reports make it clear that in any case, America's blacks are better educated and better prepared for places in the mainstream economy than ever before.
What the census numbers say is that America, the world's most changeable society, is not what it used to be. What it is becoming will be determined in ever larger measure by how well it learns to deal with its rapidly growing minority population. Looking backward won't help at all.
F: Garland L. Thompson is an editorial writer for The Sun.