California is up to its old tricks: one step ahead of the rest of the country and, in many ways, one step removed. The United States is experiencing a wave of immigration described by demographers as one of the largest and most significant in the country's history. And California is riding its crest. Already, the Golden State is well on its way to becoming - by as early as the year 2000 - what one expert calls ''the first third-world state,'' in the US.
''By that,'' says Bertram Brown, an expert on immigration and refugee issues who has dubbed California the new Ellis Island, ''I mean there will be more blacks, browns, and yellows in the state than Anglos.''
Other states, including Florida, Texas, New York, and Illinois, are also grappling with an influx of immigrants. But it is California, with its geographical proximity to both the Pacific and Latin America, that has been dealing with the largest numbers of newcomers - approximately one third of all immigrants to the US. Demographers expect that trend to continue, with California being simultaneously an indicator of what the future may hold for the rest of the country and an exaggeration of it.
''California will remain a leader in having to face this problem,'' says Stephen Levy, a senior economist with the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, Calif. ''Therefore, it has the possibility of becoming a leader in state policies in this area. Clearly, (immigration) will impact us the most.''
During the last decade, according to the 1980 census, the nation's white majority declined from 87.5 percent to 83.2 percent, while Hispanics increased by 61 percent to 6.5 percent of US population and Asians surged at an even faster rate to 3 percent of the population. (Blacks remain the largest minority group in the country, but they increased over the same period at a rate of only 17 percent). Those figures reflect, at least in part, a shift in immigration statistics; whereas Europeans once accounted for a large chunk of new immigrants to the US, Asians and Latin Americans now account for 82 percent of all immigrants.
Those same trends are found in California - only more so. Here, while the white majority dropped to 76.2 percent, Latinos nearly doubled in number, becoming 19 percent of the state's population. Asians increased, again at the fastest rate (140 percent), to make up approximately six percent of Californians. Blacks increased by 30 percent. In Los Angeles, predictions about the state as a whole have already come true. Anglos now account for less than half the population, and it has been predicted that Hispanics, now 28 percent of the city's population, may become the majority as early as 1984.
The numbers seem so endless as to be rendered almost meaningless. But the statistics spring to life in many California communities - particularly on the streets of Los Angeles.
Here, for example, centered primarily in the barrio of East Los Angeles, is the largest community of Mexicans outside Mexico City. Along Olympic Boulevard, Los Angeles Koreans - who constitute the largest Korean community outside the Orient - have carved out a niche so distinctive it has been dubbed Koreatown. In Los Angeles schools, more than a score of foreign languages are spoken.
The implications of the state's shifting ethnic makeup are broad, at both the local and international levels. They are also difficult to pinpoint, especially from a governmental point of view. Short-term challenges, budgetary and otherwise, require so much attention that officials have little time left to consider long-range changes.
At least one thing is clear, agree many experts: California's flood of immigrants provides the impetus - and the opportunity - for the state generally, and Los Angeles particularly, to develop a uniquely international environment.
''Because of its changing demographics,'' says Dr. Brown, ''California will become more significant as it becomes the centerpiece for Pacific-Asia relations and a focus for international trade and security.
''We must now think of California as a border for the Pacific-Asia region,'' he continues, ''just as we think of California and Texas as our border with Mexico.''
The promise of cultural pluralism, however, is not without potential pitfalls. For one thing, notes Sel Enzer, associate director of the Center for Futures Research at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles is expected to continue developing as a high-finance, high-tech center. Yet the continuing influx of immigrants from Latin America is likely to mean a substantial demand for low-skilled positions.
Then there is the question of the transfer of political power. Willie Brown, the first black speaker of the California Assembly, has predicted that the next eight to 10 years will see confrontations among minority politicians as blacks and Hispanics compete to nominations for various statewide offices. The confrontations, he says, will be averted only as minority groups form coalitions.
Although relations among minority communities often draw the widest attention , there is a more subtle issue only occasionally raised: how will the state's Anglo population respond to its changing status?
Demographic experts explain that the evolution of a changing minority population will be felt gradually - not as one big shock. They point optimistically to students in grade school and college who seem to show an increasing indifference to ethnic backgrounds in forming friendships. And they stress the need for greater public dialogue about the changes at hand.
''We have to recognize that we are at a watershed,'' says USC's Dr. Enzer.