White matter lesions (WMLs) detected by cerebral magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are putatively a consequence of cerebral hypoperfusion or ischemia. We investigated the prevalence, severity and correlates of WMLs in a population-based sample of 1,920 African-American and European-American men and women aged 55-72 years, during the second follow-up examination of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. The spin density images from 1.5-tesla MRI scans were used to define WMLs using a 0-9 scale with 0 for normal and 9 for most severe WMLs. Age was positively associated with the prevalence (percent) and severity of WMLs. African-Americans had lower overall prevalence of WMLs, but a higher prevalence of relatively more severe WMLs, than European-Americans. After adjusting for age, sex, and ethnicity, WMLs were significantly associated with smoking, lower education, hypertension, systolic blood pressure, and pulse pressure, and weakly associated with diastolic blood pressure. The associations of smoking, alcohol intake, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, pulse, pressure, and hypertension were stronger in African-Americans than in European-Americans (p < 0.15 for interactions by ethnicity). This population-based MRI study documents significant relationships between several cardiovascular disease risk factors and WMLs. The findings suggest that such factors play a role in the pathogenesis of WMLs, an elements linked to hypoperfusion and/or fluid accumulation, which presumably lead to WMLs. African-Americans exhibited both a higher proportion of normal white matter and a higher proportion of relatively more severe WMLs than European-Americans.