WASHINGTON -- The nation is undergoing a drastic change in its racial complexion, and leaders of what have become its three predominant minorities -- blacks, Hispanics and Asians -- are beginning to grapple with the economic and political impact of a new American diversity.
Although the final count of the 1990 census is being contested, one conclusion from it will become a fact of life in the United States: The number of Hispanics and Asians in the United States exploded in the 1980s.
* Hispanics increased by 53 percent, to 22.4 million, and now constitute about 9 percent of the nation's population. The Hispanic minority consists overwhelmingly of Mexican Americans -- two-thirds of the total -- with Puerto Ricans accounting for 12 percent and Americans of Cuban extraction, 5 percent.
* The Asian population more than doubled, to 7.3 million, and is now 3 percent of the total. The major Asian national groups are Filipinos, Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese.
* The number of blacks grew by only 13 percent over the decade, but at about 30 million they remain the nation's largest minority, or 12 percent of the total.
The result of these developments is that one of every five Americans -- at least 49.1 million of the nation's 248.7 million people -- belongs to a non-white racial/ethnic minority.
For decades -- two centuries, including the slavery era -- the country's basic racial relationship consisted of a white majority and one major minority, blacks, who in this century have constituted roughly one-tenth of the total population.
Now there are three major minorities, and their share of the U.S. population has doubled.
Milton Morris, director of research for the Washington-based Joint Center for Economic and Political Research, the nation's pre-eminent think tank on blacks, describes what has occurred this way:
"For most of the American experience, we have seen life organized along black and white racial lines. Americans have become accustomed to a black-white view of their nation -- you know, 'There were them and there were us.'
"What is becoming the case now is that one line, that cleavage, is giving way to several lines. We now have a genuinely ethnically diverse population. And that is changing a whole lot of things, both for the various minority groups involved and for the entire American society."
To Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's principal Hispanic advocacy organization, the new demographics represent a fundamental change in the nation's minority "equilibrium." Race is no longer the "one-factor difference" as it has been between the white majority and a black minority, he said; language, culture and religion also are significant differences.
"What we really have had in this country is not a 'melting pot' where everybody comes in and contributes to the flavor of the stew," Mr. Yzaguirre said in an interview. "What we've had is a pressure cooker, where everybody has had to come in and become Anglophiles.
"In a way, the new demographics ask America to live up to its own conception of itself as a pluralistic society," he added.
Hispanics, he noted, are projected to become the largest minority in the country in a few years.
For the three dominant minorities, leaders and analysts agree, the central question is whether they will cooperate with one another and share the power and rewards of coalition, or engage in inter-minority struggles likely to dilute their individual strengths.
One of the major issues facing the three minorities is jobs.
Over the last three years, a study of U.S demographics and economic trends, "Workforce 2000," published by the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute, has gained a kind of biblical resonance among the nation's black and Hispanic leaders.
One of the study's main conclusions was that in the remaining years of this century, about 85 percent of the growth in the labor force will be women, minorities and immigrants -- but that black men and Hispanics will have the most difficulty finding jobs because of their lack of skills.
Andrew Brimmer, a black economist and former member of the Federal Reserve Board, sees the possibility that blacks will be caught in a job "squeeze" -- some of it of their own making. The increase in the number of Asians and Hispanics means a "substantial addition" to the nation's potential labor force -- and therefore more people competing for jobs, Mr. Brimmer said.
Asians, on the average better educated than either blacks or Hispanics, will be able to get more of the white-collar and professional jobs, he said, while Hispanics, less skilled, compete more directly with blacks for blue-collar and service jobs -- and are "much more willing" to take "low-prestige" entry-level jobs and move up.
But Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, bristled at the idea of what he called "competition for nothing."