In the aftermath of the war, however, the politicization of white writers faded, even if the politicization of writers of color did not. By the 1980s, the political energies of writers of color were focused on what became known as identity politics and multiculturalism, the demand for more inclusive reading lists and syllabuses and prizes. The counteroffensive against these efforts led to the “culture wars,” with defenders of the Western (white) canon arguing that multiculturalism was eroding the foundations of American culture.
The multiculturalists mostly won that fight, but Mr. Trump was the continuation of the conservative counterattack. Mr. Trump clearly wanted to roll back the American timeline to the 1950s, or maybe even to 1882, the year of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
What he tried to do politically and economically, he also tried to do culturally with his Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping, which prohibited federal agencies and any organization receiving federal funding from talking with employees about white privilege or providing diversity, equity and inclusion training. “Critical race theory” became Mr. Trump’s particular target of ire. He intuited correctly that illuminating whiteness is threatening for those who have rested comfortably in unquestioned whiteness, both conservatives and liberals, a point that the poet Claudia Rankine drives home in her 2020 book “Just Us.”
Jess Row makes a similar point in his recent book of essays, “White Flights,” where he shows how deeply entrenched whiteness is in American literature and how it can be traced directly to the country’s foundational sins of conquest, genocide and slavery. The Nobel Prize lecture by this year’s winner for literature, the poet Louise Glück, succinctly illustrates Mr. Row’s point. She talks about poems that were meaningful to her as a child but that are also problematic depictions of Black servitude and plantation life, an issue that Ms. Glück simply elides.
So-called genre literature has been better than so-called literary fiction and poetry when it comes to the kind of critical and political work that unsettles whiteness and reveals the legacies of colonialism. Smart crime writers, for example, are often political because they know that an individual crime is a manifestation of a society that has committed wholesale crimes.
Some recent examples: Don Winslow, in his trilogy of novels about the drug wars culminating in “The Border,” directly links those drug wars to military conflicts the country has fought or enabled, from Vietnam to Guatemala. Steph Cha in “Your House Will Pay” approaches the Los Angeles riots through a murder mystery that focuses on the relations between Blacks and Koreans, rather than their relations to the white power structure that set them up for conflict. Attica Locke in “Heaven, My Home” continues the adventures of Darren Mathews, a Black Texas Ranger, as he investigates crimes that boil up from America’s caldron of racism and desire.
The past four years have been marked by strong works of political poetry, like Layli Long Soldier’s “Whereas,” which confronts the United States’ treatment of Native people past and present, and Solmaz Sharif’s “Look,” which draws its vocabulary from an American military dictionary in order to throw sand in the eyes of this country’s high-tech war machine.