Summary. In order to assess racial differences in rates of idiopathic preterm labour, preterm premature rupture of membranes, and medically indicated preterm delivery, the authors analysed data on 388 preterm (< 37 completed weeks of gestation) births (7.9% of all births) occurring between 1 September 1988 and 31 August 1989, in three central North Carolina counties. The crude relative risk (RR) of preterm birth among black women compared with white women was 2.6 [95% confidence interval (CI) 2.1, 3.1]. With adjustment for age, gravidity, marital status, education, and county of residence, the estimated relative risk for black women compared with white women was 2.1 (95% CI 1.1,4.1) for medically indicated preterm delivery, 1.6 (95% CI 1.1,2.3) for preterm birth as a result of preterm labour, and 1.9 (95% CI 1.2,3.1) for preterm premature rupture of membranes. Compared with white women, black women were at the highest risk of a preterm birth before 34 weeks of gestation (RR = 2.9; 95% CI 1.8, 4.7). The risk of medically indicated preterm delivery at 36 weeks was considerably higher for black women than for white women (RR = 3.4; 95% CI 1.1,10.2). For a better understanding and ultimately a reduction of the risk for preterm delivery among black women, investigation of specific aetiological pathways and gestational age groups may be required.