Robert E. James, II

Robert E. James, II

Robert E. James, II (ΦBK, Howard University) leverages his experiences in banking, law, real estate development, and consulting to generate positive impacts in communities that are often overlooked. He currently serves as chairman of the National Bankers Association.


As a child, what profession did you envision for yourself when you grew up?  

As a young child, I was enthralled with science fiction, comic books, and mythology, and I was one of those kids of the ‘70s who went to see Star Wars over a dozen times, so I wanted to be an astronaut. As I entered my teens, I began to get more interested in politics and government, so I envisioned myself as a lawyer and an elected official. That interest in government attracted me to Howard University in Washington, D.C. and the study of political science. After I graduated from Howard, I went on to earn a law degree from Harvard, and I have practiced corporate and public finance law.

What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?

I can’t remember the title, but the course was taught by Professor Joseph McCormick, and it was about Reconstruction after the Civil War. The class has had a profound impact on me because it was my first exposure to the attempted, and ultimately lost, opportunity our nation had to make recompense to enslaved Black people for the forced labor and the trauma they endured that made the United States possible. Much of my work now is ultimately dedicated to righting the wrongs visited on Black America by striving for economic equity for Black people.

You’re currently President of Carver Development CDE, LLC, an affiliate of Carver State Bank. What does your role as President entail, or what do you enjoy most about your work? 

Carver is a small Black-owned bank in Savannah, GA, founded in 1927. Even though we are a very small bank, we are committed to our mission, “Providing the building blocks to financial freedom.” One of those building blocks is “building community”, which is our shorthand for catalytic economic development in underserved communities. In my role with the CDE, I am responsible for managing our participation in the federal New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program, which was enacted in 2000 in one of the final acts of the Clinton Administration. 
A CDE is a Treasury Department-certified entity eligible to compete for allocations of these tax credits, which are used to attract private investors to support high impact economic development projects in distressed communities.  To date, we have won two allocations, totaling $80 million, which we have used in varied projects all over the State of Georgia, including rural manufacturing, urban youth services organizations, primary care health clinics, and more. NMTC allocations are highly sought after, and there is a national competition each year for a share of these scarce resources. In Georgia, Carver is the only community bank, and only entity outside Atlanta, to ever win an allocation, and only the fifth Black owned bank in the country to ever secure an allocation.
I am also responsible for setting the strategic direction of the bank, and we are aggressively raising new capital to fund a digital transformation of our institution so we can deliver our services more efficiently, to more customers.

You also founded the Coastal Legacy Group in 2004. What led you to create the firm, or have you implemented any projects or initiatives you’re especially proud of? 

As a young lawyer, I became interested in commercial real estate development, but did not really know where to start. I founded Coastal Legacy Group to try my hand at developing. I’m really proud to have helped create the Carver Commons project on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in downtown Savannah in 2011. We combined the bank’s headquarters building, a vacant lot, and the neighboring church’s parking lot into a new building that housed a 25,000 foot grocery store and new, smaller headquarters for the bank. The church, which I grew up in and my parents still attend, has over 50 years of income from a ground lease and an improved parking lot.  Although the grocery operator shut down after less than a year due to poor management, the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate took over the space and runs their ReStore retail business and administrative functions from the location. Our bank has struck a partnership with Habitat, supporting their affordable housing mission by servicing their mortgages and extending them lines of credit for operations. The project was the largest private investment in the neighborhood since the early 70s and brings a vibrant commercial presence to one of the poorest census tracts in the state.

What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as the new Chairman of the National Bankers Association? 

I am very excited about the opportunity to serve as Chair of such a storied organization. The NBA was founded in 1927 as the Negro Bankers Association, a professional and advocacy organization for Black bank leaders to share expertise and resources, critical at a time when they were shut out of larger all-white banking associations. Now we have expanded to represent all minority owned banks, and we serve as the voice of those banks in Washington and nationally. Our members are in 22 states and include Black, Latinx, Native, and Asian American banks.
I have a two-year term as Chair, and we have three major priorities. First, to attract as much capital as possible to our member banks, especially Black banks. These banks have been chronically starved of capital, which, when combined with historical racial inequity in federal housing policy and other systemic issues impacting wealth creation in Black communities, has stunted their growth. Now only 18 out of over 5,000 banks in America are Black owned or led. As a result of the tragic police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, and the youth-inspired Movement for Black Lives, we have an unprecedented opportunity to attract capital to these institutions that are anchors in Black communities. Our second priority is to raise the profile of the Association and its members. We have incredible stories to tell about the powerful impact these banks have on minority communities, but we are often so busy doing the work that we don’t take time to tell those stories. Finally, we must strengthen the infrastructure of the Association, so it can provide more services to our members, and, by extension, the communities our members serve. To fulfill these goals, we are bringing in new executive leadership and ramping up our fundraising to sustain the Association well into the future.

Do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded, liberal arts and sciences education are important in today’s society?

Phi Beta Kappa and liberal arts and sciences education are arguably more important than ever. In the past few years, we have seen a literal assault on the truth and science, persistent and deleterious misinformation and disinformation, and a rising intolerance for intellectual pursuits and critical thinking. For a free, democratic society to exist and function, we must continue to encourage everyone to think critically, expose young people to a wide range of disciplines, and teach them to discern the difference between facts and fiction. There’s nothing wrong with healthy debates or differences of opinion, but debate is only productive when there’s a baseline agreement about facts. I am hopeful that those who are armed with a liberal arts and sciences education can eventually vanquish misinformation for the benefit of all.

Do you have any advice for young Phi Beta Kappa members? 

Phi Beta Kappans tend to be driven and focused. That’s good, but don’t be afraid to take some chances, especially when you are young and have fewer responsibilities. Do your best to travel (after we’ve emerged from the pandemic!) and continue to expose yourself to new cultures and experiences. Exposing yourself to a wide range of experiences is a great way to find your passion, which is a great way to find a meaningful life’s work.

What book are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend? 

I am reading A Promised Land by Barack Obama. President Obama is an inspirational figure, and a gifted writer, so it is far from a dry, stuffy memoir. Most nights I unwind watching TV, so there’s a lot to talk about! I recently saw Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and my fellow Howard alumnus, the late Chadwick Boseman, was phenomenal. I loved the second season of The Mandalorian, and I’m also enjoying WandaVision, the creepy new Marvel series. Just before writing this response, my teenage daughter and I watched the first episode of Lupin and it was fantastic!