Incidence rates for renal cell cancer, which accounts for 85% of kidney cancers, have been rising more rapidly among blacks than whites, almost entirely accounted for by an excess of localized disease. This excess dates back to the 1970s, despite less access among blacks to imaging procedures in the past. In contrast, mortality rates for this cancer have been virtually identical among blacks and whites since the early 1990s, despite the fact that nephrectomy rates, regardless of stage, are lower among blacks than among whites. These observations suggest that renal cell cancer may be a less aggressive tumor in blacks. We have reviewed the epidemiology of renal cell cancer, with emphasis on factors which may potentially play a role in the observed differences in incidence and mortality patterns of renal cell cancer among blacks and whites. To date, the factors most consistently, albeit modestly, associated with increased renal cell cancer risk in epidemiologic studies among whites--obesity, hypertension, cigarette smoking--likely account for less than half of these cancers, and there is virtually no epidemiologic evidence in the literature pertaining to their association with renal cell cancer among blacks. There is a long overdue need for detailed etiologic cohort and case-control studies of renal cell cancer among blacks, as they now represent the population at highest risk in the United States. In particular, investigation of the influence on renal cell cancer development of hypertension and chronic kidney disease, both of which occur substantially more frequently among blacks, is warranted, as well as investigations into the biology and natural history of this cancer among blacks.