Behind the ivy-covered walls of academe, in small seminars and large auditoriums, a heated debate is stirring among black - and a scattering of white - intellectuals. The issue: Has class has become more important than race in determining the economic and educational opportunities of blacks?

The dispute has been fueled by publication of sociologist William Julius Wilson's book, "The Declining Significance of Race." Wilson's theory is that as the growing black middle class experiences unprecedented new job opportunities, the black underclass, poorly trained and educationally limited, is falling down the economic drain of low wages and inner-city crime. The opposition led by social psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, contends that "race is still the dominant factor is determining black life chances."

As some prepare to observe the 25th aniversary next Thursday of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision overturning public school segregation, people in many quarters fear that acceptance of the idea of class over race could mean the dismantling of government and industry affirmative action programs.

It could even affect the present court's rulings, they say, on "reverse discrimination" cases such as the pending Weber case, involving a white worker suing Kaiser Aluminium on the ground that his employment advancement was denied because of race.

Blacks, some say, are in danger of losing the opportunity to attain economic and educational parity with whites.

Most opponents of Wilson scoff at the class idea for ignoring the element of racism. The statistics he cites, they claim, show only part of the picture - economic and edecational gains for some and sharpening class differences - but not the personal way in which people relate each other.

Journalist Lerone Bennett recounts the story of a black corporate executive who, in the world of high finance, forgot his color - until one day he was passed up by several white cab drivers outside a Chicago hotel. The point Bennett makes - that race is still the cutting edge for blacks - is painfully clear to most Afro-Americans.

Blacks buying homes in or near white neighborhoods for top-notch school facilities and diverse community services must stop and think, before purchasing, about the possibility of stirring racial tension. Competition between black and white athletes, particularly that shown on national television, frequently contains the backdrop of race - whites rooting for whites, blacks cheering for blacks.

Black performers frequently see their music and dance diluted by whites, who go on to reap huge financial rewards from largely white audiences. Television and the movie industry, the mighty manipulators of public images, are constantly attacked by blacks for unfair depiction of Afro-Americans

Most white-owned newspapers and magazines in America employ minuscule numbers of blacks and carry few stories about them. Most blacks would agree with Kenneth Clark that tokenism remains the rule in employment and racial acceptance. ". . . Blacks are now confronted with more subtle and sophisticated manifestations of traditional racism," he says. Quick with Statistics

Clark and Wilson squared off at a recent symposium here, the first inperson encounter between the two - Clark, the calm veteran of 30 years of civil rights battles, the man whose research was used in the Supreme Court's school segregation decision, and Wilson, the newcomer, the professor who wants no part of policymaking but seemingly cannot escape controversy.

When the smoke had cleared, no one claimed victory, and each side said it had learned from the other.

To make his case that race is declining as an economic and educational factor, Wilson is quick with a statistic. The number of blacks attending colleges, he says, jumped from 240,000 in 1966 to more than a million today. And these students come largely from families with incomes of $15,000 or more - a middle-class yardstick, he says.

"Moreover," he continues, "black graduates beginning in the higher paying fields of business and engineering now earn about the national average." He adds that young black male college graduates have approached income parity with their white counterparts.

But while there have been dramatic improvements in black mobility, Wilson contends, the economic situation of poor blacks has been deteriorating. After decreasing from 48.1 percent in 1959 to 29.4 percent in 1968 the proportion of black families with less than $4,000 annually has remained around 28 percent since 1969, he said.

At the same time black median family income has dropped from 61 percent of that of whites i 1969 to 57 percent in 1977.

It was virtuoso performance, befitting a man who ascended to the coveted position of sociology department chairman last year at the University of Chicago at age 42. But the doubters weren't convinced. Wilson, they say, did not give enough credence to racism. A guise of nonracism?

The next night Clark delineated the theory of race as dominant factor. He rattled off the often quoted statistics intended to show that blacks are making economic strides. Then, in an impish tone and smoky voice, he said, "One of the things I learned in college in doing research is that you don't take percentage increases seriously unless you have a weak case. These figures really don't mean anything because you start with such disparate differences in ends."

The audience laughed, and Clark said he didn't know how blacks could have endured without humor.

"Contemporary racism," he said, "now comes under the guise of non-racism. The courts are being asked to restrict what little progress blacks have made during the past two decades with the argument that black progress can only come with racial discrimination against whites. This is the most disturbing legal problem facing us today."

Relying on his personal experience, the psychologist said in the last two years he had seen two cases in New York state in which "superior candidates" for top educational position were denied appointments because they were black.

"In each case," he recalled, "an influential member of the respective search committee was candid in stating that while he was personally without prejudice, it was his - in one case her - considered opinion that the public was not yet ready for blacks to be given these positions."

The world of corporate employment - and advancement - is no better for blacks, said Clark. He referred to a preliminary study his consulting firm conducted in the New York metropolitan area showing that black males in managerial and executive levels were consistently rated lower in performance than whites. Moreover, said Clark, if black males and whites females were compared, the women would be rated higher.

If residual bias is an operating factor, and Clark thinks it is, then it would influence the limited promotion ceiling for all but the most extraordinary blacks ("what my wife calls the Ralph Bunche syndrome").

A recent survey of about 300 U.S. corporations showed that the biggest obstacle to minorities and women in business was a "perceived lack" of qualifications. Though the executives said they believed affirmative employment programs had helped women and minorities, more than 90 percent said was it was not likely that any of the surveyed companies would have women or black chief executive officers in the next 10 to 15 years.

Turning to the word "quota," as used in racial employment numerical goals, Clarks said the term was being employed as a "red herring to alert the public that blacks are being given positions which they do not deserve." He acknowledged that the term traditionally meant the exclusion of certain groups, particularly Jews.

"Intelligent people, like my former student, Nathan Glazer, use this distortion of language as instruments for the maintenance of the racial status quo," he remarked.T". . . The most disturbing thing is . . . the fact that blacks have not yet developed any effective method for countering these devastating forms of sophisticated racism." "I disagree"

Clark lamented that northern urban schools are turning out hundereds of thousands of functionally illiterate minority students.

"It is my considered opinion . . . that the maintenance of inferior education in the segretated schools of northern cities is deliberate," he said. "I believe that these black children . . . are not educated so as to keep them from competing with more privileged children for a constructive role in our society."

In the end, Clark called on Wilson to dissociate himself from Nathan Glazer, Democratic Sen. Daniel Moynihan of New York and other social scientists who have attacked affirmative action (he called them the "Charles River crowd" because of their current or former Harvard connection).

Wilson said he planned to write an epilogue to the paperbound edition of his book demolishing the idea that he was linked with anti-affirmative action forces. But Wilson's paper made it clear that he is not backing away from his original position, though he acknowledges that race will continue to hold significance for individual blacks.

"I say this not to contradict my previous assertion", he said, "that for blacks there is now a basis for class issues to compete meaningfully with race issues, but rather to point out that blacks of all walks of life still experience widespread discrimination on the social, community and political levels."

Said Clark: "I've learned from Bill Wilson. He's made me rethink my positions. But I disagree with him."