To overcome patterns of racial discrimination in hiring practices, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 required government agencies and contractors to develop plans to bring the proportion of their female and minority employees into line with their proportions in the available labor market-a policy that came to be called affirmative action. Corporations and private institutions also adopted plans of affirmative action, but resistance to them, based on charges of "reverse discrimination," led to court battles. By the late 1990s affirmative action was on its way to possible elimination.

Civil rights activists continued to press for further government action against de facto segregation, but court-ordered school desegregation plans in northern cities provoked a backlash by whites and encouraged "white flight" to the suburbs. Lack of progress, and outright public and political opposition to their concerns, caused frustrations among many civil rights leaders, not only African Americans. Native Americans, Hispanics, women, gays and lesbians, students, senior citizens, and persons with disabilities looked for ways to advance their interests by influencing public discourse and action. In turn, right-wing Christians with their own agendas spoke and acted through the Moral Majority, founded in 1979, and the Christian Coalition (1989). People for the American Way (1980) sought to advance opposing views. Many other advocacy groups sprang up. With conflicting interests and purposes, these groups participated in controversies over social issues that persisted to the end of the century.

The Supreme Court's 1972 ruling in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton that state laws prohibiting abortion were unconstitutional provoked one of the most heated controversies, one that was marked by protests and violence at abortion clinics and even assassination of doctors who performed abortions.

Other controversial issues included the civil rights of gays and lesbians, changing sexual mores, "family values," welfare reform, public funding for religious or private schools, preservation of the natural and cultural environment, health insurance, campaign financing, and gun control. The resulting "culture wars" led to hostilities that caused thoughtful people to look for ways to restore civility to public discourse.