Two minority student groups at Harvard Law School are urging classmates to boycott a race discrimination course, to be taught by one of the country's leading civil rights lawyers, because the lawyer is white.

The course, Racial Discrimination and Civil Rights, is to be taught this winter by Jack Greenberg, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund for the last 20 years. The fund's president, a black lawyer, J. LeVonne Chambers of Charlotte, N.C., is to teach the course along with Greenberg.

The controversy is the latest in a series of confrontations in recent years between minority students and the Harvard administration over the lack of black faculty and administrators, the low number of minority students at the law school, usually about 10 percent, and the even lower minority representation on the prestigious Harvard Law Review.

The boycott effort sounds a note of irony because Chambers says he recruited Greenberg to help since he was too busy to teach the course alone.

The Harvard Black Law Students Association (BLSA), the main group representing black law students, and the Third World Coalition, an umbrella group of various minority organizations, voted before the end of the spring term to urge students to boycott the course.

"This course is concerned with the legal system and Third World people in the United States and, therefore, it is extremely important that it be taught by an instructor who can identify and empathize with the social, cultural, economic and political experiences of the Third World community," the coalition said.

Greenberg, who succeeded Justice Thurgood Marshall as head of the legal defense fund, has worked on many of the major civil rights cases decided in the last 30 years, including Brown vs. Board of Education and nearly 40 other Supreme Court cases.

BLSA called the choice of Greenberg "especially inappropriate" because of "his adamant refusal to relinquish directorship of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to a black attorney," among other reasons.

Greenberg said in a letter to BLSA that "it never has been seriously suggested" that he should step aside in favor of a black lawyer.

The dispute over who would teach the civil rights course heated up last January, when members of the BLSA met with Harvard Law School Dean James Vorenberg to discuss the choice.

Vorenberg "expressed a preference for 'an excellent white teacher' . . . over a 'mediocre black one,' " the BLSA later wrote attorney Chambers.

The group said it was "stunned that the law school apparently saw the choice of a white professor versus a black professor as the choice of excellence versus mediocrity."

There is currently one tenured black faculty member at Harvard Law School and one black assistant professor. The coalition charged that the absence of more black professors "is not due to a vacuum of qualified Third World legal professionals, but rather to the institution's inadequate search methods and the biased criteria it uses to judge prospective Third World faculty candidates."

The controversy became public last week when Harvard sent a letter to second- and third-year students telling them about the proposed boycott.

"I believe that to boycott a course on racial discrimination, because part of it is taught by a white lawyer, is wrong in principle and works against, not for, shared goals of racial and social justice," Vorenberg said.

Vorenberg also sent students copies of the coalition's statement, the BLSA's letter to Chambers, and responses from both him and Greenberg.

Suggesting that Greenberg "relinquish the directorship of the legal defense fund simply because he is not black is as objectionable as what you suggest about the law school's failure to hire and tenure more black professors," Chambers said.

Greenberg could not be reached over the weekend for comment.