We sought explanations for African-American mothers’ increased risk of chorioamnionitis by sequentially adjusting for confounder variables both individually and in groups. We searched for a subset of covariates that had the most influence on the chorioamnionitis odds ratio (OR) of these women. The sample consisted of 305 African-American and 520 White mothers who gave birth to a very-low-birthweight ( 1500 g) infant between 1991 and 1993, whose placenta was examined according to protocol and whose hospital chart was reviewed. Histologically proven chorioamnionitis was present in 43% of the placentas from African-American women and in 27% of those from Whites (crude OR 2.1, 95% confidence interval 1.5, 2.8). Singleton status appeared to be the most important effect modifier, with significant crude ORs of 1.5 among singletons and 3.4 among non-singletons. Using logistic regression models in the whole sample and in subgroups, we sought to ‘explain away’ this increased risk. Indeed, addition of information about confounder variables resulted in considerable reduction in the ORs to 1.1 among singletons and 1.9 among non-singletons. Particularly important among the confounders were singleton birth, Medicaid insurance, duration of ruptured membranes and gestational age. We discuss the possibility that this set of confounding variables conveys, in part, the same information as the variable African-American, and also perhaps information about the availability and/or utilisation of prenatal health care.