For Boston College School of Social Work Assistant Professor Robert Motley Jr., there has always been a personal dimension to his research, which examines the intersection of racism, violence, and trauma for Black emerging adults and associated adverse mental and behavioral outcomes.

Growing up on the west side of Chicago, he says, he was exposed to both community- and police-based violence, some of it involving friends and acquaintances. Shortly after moving to St. Louis with his now-wife, Jamie D. Motley, and starting graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, the Michael Brown shooting took place in nearby Ferguson, Mo., sparking an emotional, nationwide debate on police interactions with Black men.

“Police violence can affect anyone, but there are additional consequences to consider if that violence is perceived to occur because of one’s skin color or ethnicity,” said Motley, whose dissertation at Washington University-St. Louis was based on interviews with 300 Black college students in St. Louis who had personally experienced or witnessed police violence, or watched it on video. “There are quantifiable harmful effects, even if the person was an observer of the violence, and these can endure for a significantly long time.”

But then came last summer, and Motley was touched by violence in a way he could scarcely have imagined.

In August, only weeks after Motley joined the BCSSW faculty, his cousin was shot and killed by an unlicensed security guard at a Memphis, Tenn., gas station. According to police, Alvin Motley Jr. was a passenger in a car driven by his girlfriend when she parked at the gas station. The security guard, former police officer Gregory Livingston, got into a dispute with Motley over the volume of the music playing on the car stereo. The vision-impaired Motley—who was unarmed, with a beer can and cigarette in hand—left the car and approached Livingston, who shot Motley in the chest. In December, Livingston was indicted for first-degree murder.

Interviewed by a TV station when the indictment was announced, Robert Motley recalled his cousin as having “a beautiful spirit about himself, and a real, real great concern about the well-being of his family and the ones he loved. He would give the shirt off his back.”

Reflecting more recently on his cousin’s death, he said, “You know that something like this is certainly possible. But that doesn’t make it any easier to bear.”

There is still a lack of understanding—and acceptance—in the general public of trauma’s real, demonstrable impact on the individual, said Motley, and the health-related implications of experiencing racism in daily life.

The tragedy of last summer has added further impetus to Motley’s work, which is aimed at developing intervention and treatment programs to aid Black emerging adults (defined as ages 18-29) who have experienced or witnessed racism-based police use of force. Motley says his research also can aid in law enforcement officer training.

Early on at BCSSW, Motley—who received a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University and an M.S.W. from the University of Illinois-Chicago—established the Racism-based Violence Injury & Prevention Lab, which serves as a wellspring for research and related activities based on his scholarship. Motley and his lab colleagues published an article last month in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, which is produced by the American Psychological Association—the latest in a series of papers Motley expects to release in the coming months, including one concerning safety and social mobility among Black emerging adults in Boston.

There is still a lack of understanding—and acceptance—in the general public of trauma’s real, demonstrable impact on the individual, said Motley, and the health-related implications of experiencing racism in daily life. He cites the Race-Based Traumatic Stress Symptom Scale, created in 2007, as a valuable tool in assessing the emotional impact of racism through factors such as depression, anger, hypervigilance, low self-esteem, disassociation, and intrusive thoughts.

A less-explored aspect of racism-based police violence—and one particularly relevant to the Black emerging adult population—is the role of social media, said Motley, which can widely share such incidents through TikTok, YouTube, and other platforms. Black emerging adults, who are likely to experience or witness police violence five to seven times in their lives, also may view as many as 34 such videos in a 12-month period, according to his research in St. Louis.

“Most of these young people, with a median age of 20, are still in the midst of important intellectual and emotional development,” said Motley. “They have a high rate of exposure to this kind of violence, whether in person or through social media. It’s vital that health practitioners have measures in place to assess how someone in this demographic has been affected by this exposure, what kind of intervention he or she might need, and how effective it is.”

Information like this also should be part of the orientation for police officers, added Motley, who is working with an agency that provides training for law enforcement professionals: “It’s valuable knowledge that officers should incorporate into their interactions with youth.”

It’s not lost on Motley that many of the Black emerging adults his work encompasses have likely seen videos of his cousin’s death. He doesn’t expect, nor does he want, “people to stop videoing.” But he believes strongly that social media outlets should be more diligent in providing content information and warnings for such violent material and, where warranted, censor certain posts.

“The data is there: Seeing racism-based police violence has a particularly harmful effect on Black emerging adults,” said Motley, who is writing a book dedicated to Alvin’s memory. “It’s important for us to be aware of that impact and to be able to provide a culturally responsive intervention.”

In the meantime, Motley and his wife, who works at Wellesley College, feel at home in the Greater Boston area, and enjoy going to movies, concerts, and sporting events. “I’m delighted to be part of BC, and the BC School of Social Work community in particular. BCSSW has offered me the ideal support and circumstances for what I want to accomplish, and I look forward to many fruitful years ahead.”

Sean Smith | University Communications | March 2022