Background The diagnosis of cognitive impairment and dementia must reflect an increasingly diverse and aging United States population. This study compared direct testing and informant reports of cognition with clinical diagnoses of cognitive impairment and dementia between African Americans and whites. Methods Participants in the Aging, Demographics, and Memory Study completed in-person dementia evaluations, and were assigned clinical diagnoses (by a consensus panel of dementia experts) of normal; cognitive impairment, not demented (CIND); and dementia. The Consortium to Establish a Registry for Alzheimer's Disease (CERAD) total score and the Informant Questionnaire on Cognitive Decline in the Elderly (IQCODE) were used to assess cognitive performance and reported cognitive decline. Results A higher CERAD total score was associated with lower odds of CIND and dementia, at comparable ratios between African Americans and whites. Higher IQCODE scores were associated with increased odds of dementia in both African Americans and whites. Higher IQCODE scores were associated with increased odds of CIND among whites, but not among African Americans. Conclusions Cultural differences may influence informant reports of prevalent CIND and dementia. Our findings also highlight the need for more comparative research to establish the cultural validity of measures used to diagnose these conditions.